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NOTEBOOK: Stafford encouraged by run game improvements

It was a small sample size, but quarterback Matthew Stafford was impressed with what he saw from Detroit's run game in last week's loss to the 49ers.

The circumstances of the game forced the Lions to abandon the run game late in the third quarter down 17 points, but up until that point, Detroit had gained 98 yards on just 18 attempts for an average of 5.4 yards per run, which is well above the 4.0 mark teams typically use as a baseline for measuring successful run games.

"There was a decent amount of success when we were handing the ball off," Stafford said Thursday of the run game last week. "I'm really encouraged by it.

"A couple second-down handoffs that we didn't even have third down. It was second and four or five or whatever and now we're getting a first down again and that's good stuff."

It's been well documented over the years how little help Stafford has received from the run game, so while it is just one game and a small sample size within one game, it's obviously promising for him to see some gains in an area the Lions put a lot of resources into improving this offseason.

Rookie running back Kerryon Johnson gained 43 yards on just eight carries (5.4 average), and veteran running back LeGarrette Blount had 38 yards on eight carries (4.8).

One of the things that's really been missing from the Lions' run game recently has been chunk runs. Johnson had a 21-yard burst in the game and Blount had a 13-yard pop.

"It takes a lot of pressure off our offense," Stafford said. "A lot of pressure off our play caller, me and everybody if we hand the ball off on second down and get a first down, or hand the ball off to Kerryon and we have 21 (yards) and chunk plays in there. LeGarrette had some chunk plays."

Also encouraging was the play of the guys upfront to create some of those rushing lanes for Johnson and Blount to run through against a 49ers' defense that played a lot of seven and eight-man fronts. The Lions were also without starting right guard T.J. Lang in the contest.

Unfortunately, circumstances have dictated the Lions run the ball only 33 times this year having been down double digits in the second half of each of their first two contests. They haven't had an opportunity to get it going for four quarters, but are hopeful they can do that Sunday night against New England.

"We made tremendous improvements (from Week 1 to Week 2) and that's what you have to focus on, the improvement," Johnson said. "Obviously, it didn't turn out how we wanted it to (on the scoreboard), but as long as we're getting better we know we're going down the right track."


New England All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, the favorite target of quarterback Tom Brady for many years now, caught just two passes for 15 yards in New England's loss to the Jaguars last week.

Asked Wednesday if the Lions learned anything from the Jacksonville tape when it came to trying to slow down Gronkowski, Lions safety Glover Quin paused for a minute and said, 'nah.'

Then a smile started to slowly come over his face, and he knew the jig was up. The reality of the NFL is that it's a copycat league. If it worked one week, expect to see it again. The Lions have allowed a long touchdown on the stretch run play in each of their first two games. What are the odds the Patriots run a stretch play Sunday night?

Of course the Lions have looked at the tape on Jacksonville and their ability to slow down Gronkowski in hopes it can help them do the same thing at Ford Field Sunday night.

"For one, he's been with Tom for so many years, so they have a good rapport on the field," Quin said of what makes Gronkowski so difficult to defend. "They play really well together." broke down Gronkowski's game last week against the Jags and came to the conclusion that Jacksonville played mostly man on Gronkowski, double teaming him just six times in the 30 times Gronkowski ran a route. They mostly used their safeties, but different players got in on the action.

Jacksonville has one of the most talented secondaries in the league. Whether or not the Lions trust their secondary, which could be short All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay (concussion) to do the same thing, or if they decide to shift coverage Gronkowski's way, will be determined Sunday.

But the importance of limiting Gronkowski can't be understated. The last six times Gronkowski has been held to two or fewer catches while playing a full game, the Patriots are 1-5 in those contests, according to

"He's big, physical and he's faster than people think," Quin said of Gronkowski. "He runs kind of weird, but he moves. He moves fast.

"He's not real shifty, but you don't have to be when you're that big (6-6, 265). He has big strong hands and great body control. It's like guarding Ziggy (Ansah), and he has great ball skills. All those things together make it tough."


There's only so much Quin and the Lions can do to prepare for new Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon, who could suit up for New England Sunday night.

There isn't a lot of recent film on Gordon, and Detroit obviously won't have any idea of how the Patriots and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels plan to utilize him in their offense, if he's active and if he plays.

While other Lions players may look at old Cleveland Browns tape to prepare for Gordon, Quin hasn't. He said the biggest key is just identifying early what the Patriots are doing with Gordon and adjusting accordingly.

"You've got to adjust and see how they're using him and what they're trying to do and just go out and play the game," Quin said. "If they put him in there, he's just part of the game plan. I would say see how they're using him and what they're trying to do, then make adjustments."

Gordon, who was traded to the Patriots earlier this week, caught one of his three targets for the Browns Week 1, a 17-yard touchdown. He played in five games in 2017. Before that he hadn't played since 2014 due to violations of the league's substance abuse policy.

"Obviously, he's a big time receiver," Quin said. "He's a big, physical, tall guy with ball skills. He tore the league up a couple years ago. He's definitely a talented guy.

"He hasn't played a lot of football the past couple of years. You can take that how you want it. I might take it as he's got fresh legs. Some people might take it as he's rusty. I don't know. It's all about playing the game and it'll all go based on how the game goes."

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