HOUSTON – Lions-Texans Final Thoughts: Tahir Whitehead-Josh Bynes linebacker partners again; five thoughts reaching the midway point; Martin-Lechler a premier punting duel; matchups for the Lions at center, punter and special-teams stats.
Reunited: Need and circumstances have put Josh Bynes and Tahir Whitehead back together at linebacker, and the Lions can only hope results are similar to when they were called on in 2014 to play major roles because of a personnel crisis.
Bynes is a smart, instinctive player with a feel for the passing game – something that has been a weakness in the linebacker corps this year because of a lack of overall experience and DeAndre Levy's absence because of an injury.
Whitehead expects Bynes to fit back in quickly because he is stepping into a familiar environment. He has experience under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and linebackers coach Bill Sheridan.
"He's familiar with the scheme," Whitehead said. "He can go out there and play fast. There's no midstream adjustment. He's been around the past three seasons. He was here in training camp. It's just a matter of getting out there and rolling."
Asked Friday how long it will take for Bynes to fit in, head coach Jim Caldwell replied: "It won't take long."
"Josh has always been a very, very good communicator," Caldwell said. "It's kind of a natural knack that he has. He's got an excellent grasp of what we do from a defensive standpoint. He communicates it very well."
2014 revisited: Bynes became a Lion in 2014 when starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first half of a victory over Green Bay in Game 3.
Before the game ended, the pro personnel department was on the phone making arrangements to sign Bynes off Baltimore's practice squad.
With Tulloch out, Whitehead moved from outside linebacker to the middle. Bynes played the last 13 games as a backup. Both were key members of a defense that ranked No. 2 overall to the Seattle Seahawks and No. 1 against the run.
Bynes played all 16 games last year, with 11 starts.
Five thoughts for Week 8:
1. Stafford vs. Jaworski: Matthew Stafford has 178 touchdown passes and needs one to tie Ron Jaworski and Babe Parilli for 54th on the all-time list. Rich Gannon is 53rd with 180.
Jaworski has been a persistent critic of Stafford in his quarterback commentaries and evaluations on ESPN. It could make for a fun note.
2. Playing for position: The NFC North is one of three divisions that has at least three teams with winning records. For the Lions, a victory keeps them in touch with the top two teams in the North. In other games this week, first-place Minnesota (5-1) is heavily favored to win at Chicago on Monday Night Football. Green Bay (4-2) faces a tougher test on the road against Atlanta. Beating Houston to get to 5-3 could have the Lions in second place heading into the second half of the season.
3. Tight-fisted: Matthew Stafford has targeted tight ends only three times – all catches by Clay Harbor for short gains – in the three games Eric Ebron has missed. Ebron expects that to change when he returns.
"I know I've missed him," Ebron said. "I hope he missed me."
4. On the line: The play of center Travis Swanson and the promotion of rookie Graham Glasgow to starting left guard are factors in the offensive line's improvement.
5. Rush job: Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is playing better than his stats show. He has only two sacks, but he has nine quarterback hits, seven tackles for loss, and his quickness and penetration can disrupt the passing game.
Matchup 1 – middle men: Swanson has developed rapidly in his second season as a full-time starter. The pivot is a critical position both in performance and the mental responsibility of making calls and adjustments.
Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork will give Swanson his biggest test of the first half of the season, at least in terms of size. The Texans list the 13-year pro at 325 pounds, but the eye test indicates that Wilfork is somewhat heavier.
"The most powerful big man is going to line up on him (Swanson) that he's seen, I think, at any point in time – other than working against Haloti (Ngata) in practice," Caldwell said.
"Vince is a powerful man, so it'll be a good challenge."
Matchup II – leg men: One battle worth watching is the matchup of the two punters. It's the old legend – Shane Lechler of the Texans – against the Lions' Sam Martin, one of the rising young stars.
Lechler, in his 17th season and fourth with the Texans, qualifies as one of the all-time greats.
"Obviously, in the punting world, he's a legend," Martin said. "He's been to X amount of Pro Bowls. I'm excited to meet him and see him punt.
"I don't think of it as Martin versus Lechler. I don't think any punter goes into it thinking he's punting against this punter because I'm not. I'm punting against the returner. It's cool to see these guys you've never seen before – especially guys I have as much respect for as I have for Lechler."
"Legend" is an accurate description of what Lechler has accomplished. He ranks No. 1 on the all-time career list with a gross average of 47.5 yards per punt. His gross average this year at age 40 is 48.1, more than a half yard higher than his career average.
Lecher's career resume is worthy of consideration for the Hall of Fame. He has led the league in gross punting average five times, with a career-high of 51.1 in 2009. He's been voted first-team All-Pro six times, made seven Pro Bowls and is the first-team punter on the Pro Football Hall of Fame's all-decade team of the 2000s.
Matchup III: special stats: It's advantage Lions on punts.
Martin has the edge on Lechler in gross average (50.3, 48.1), net average (46.8, 38.5) and punt return yards allowed (64 to a whopping 309). That's a tribute to Martin's hang time, and the coverage units getting downfield to hold opposing returners to an average of 5.8 yards on 11 returns of 24 punts.
Of Lechler's 34 punts, a league-high 23 have been returned for an average of 13.4 yards, with a long return of 71 yards – seven yards longer than the entire return yardage against the Lions' coverage unit.