GLENDALE, Ariz. – Safety Quandre Diggs doesn’t expect lightning to strike twice, with a repeat today in the Detroit Lions’ opening game against the Arizona Cardinals of the play he made in last year’s opener that rocked Ford Field like a thunderbolt of joy.
Diggs’ play comes first in my Final Thoughts as the Lions open the 2019 season. There’s also a look at an added element in the tight ends that should help Matthew Stafford and the offense, Cardinals QB Kyler Murray not worried about a rule, rookie Beau Benszchawel adding a position to his resume, Random Thoughts, and sticking with my pick.
We start with Diggs:
He read the first play of the season against the Jets perfectly when rookie quarterback Sam Darnold threw the ball back across the field while rolling out. Diggs intercepted the ball on the run and streaked into the end zone for a touchdown.
It was a magical beginning in Matt Patricia’s first game as head coach – a TD return for a 7-0 lead just 20 seconds into the game. The magic vanished with turnovers and defensive breakdowns that snowballed into a 48-17 loss.
Diggs doesn’t expect a repeat today – of the interception, or a Lions loss – as the Lions face Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray in his first NFL game.
“You never think about that,” Diggs said of starting the season with a TD return on a pick.
“Most of the time, that’s unrealistic. That’s a once in a lifetime thing. That’s just something that happened – me being in the right place. You never go out expecting those things. You kind of let those plays happen.”
Diggs is a smart player who knows the game on and off the field. Growing up in Texas – and playing at the University of Texas – he's followed Murray since he was in high school. His perspective on the 5-foot-10 quarterback is influenced in part by his own background as a supposedly under-sized (5-9) sixth-round draft pick who worked his way up.
“I literally watched him (Murray) since he was in high school – making plays in high school,” Diggs said. “He’s always been a very mature guy. He’s a playmaker. If he was 6-5, you all would be talking about him being the greatest quarterback prospect ever.
“It’s what I told you guys when I was drafted here. Don’t let the numbers fool you. It’s about going out and competing on Sunday – doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Being a great teammate, not making mistakes. Knowing the game.
“It’s not all about size and height.”
Tight spots: Tight ends played key roles is some of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s biggest seasons early in his career. That could be the case again with an all-new trio of rookie T.J. Hockenson and veterans Jesse James and Logan Thomas.
They have one thing in common – height and length that make them big targets. Hockenson is 6-5, Thomas 6-6 and James 6-7.
“All of the guys can do a little bit of everything, which is fun to have as a quarterback,” Stafford said. “All of them are big, physical guys. All of them move really well and catch the ball really well. They hold up in the run game and the pass game, blocking-wise.
“All of them are big, tall players that move well and catch the ball well in all spots.”
Brandon Pettigrew, drafted along with Stafford in the first round in 2009, was often maligned for occasional drops, but he produced. After 30 catches as a rookie, Pettigrew had 254 the next four seasons.
His career high of 83 catches came in 2011, the year Stafford played all 16 games for the first time and set career highs of 5,038 yards passing and 41 TDs.
Beau knows center, too: That’s Beau Benzschawel, the Lions’ rookie offensive lineman who made the 53-player roster cut as an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin. He was a highly regarded guard in college and had never played center at any level before the Lions asked him to add the position to his resume the week of the final preseason game at Cleveland.
Beau started and played the first half at left guard, then switched to center in the second half. It was an entirely new position.
“Obviously, I’ll do whatever they ask me to do,” he said. “It was a little nerve wracking, just because you’re the leader of the offensive line, pointing everybody in the right direction. There were a couple stressful nights, trying to study the playbook.”
Being a quick study no doubt helped Beau make the roster.
“If you want to stick around, you have to get better,” Beau said. “They thought I was good enough to keep around.”
Equal opportunity: It’s not idle talk when the Lions tell rookies that they all have a chance, no matter their draft status.
While two seventh-round draft picks were cut – tight end Isaac Nauta of Georgia and defensive tackle P.J. Johnson of Arizona -- Benzschawel was one of three undrafted rookies who made the roster. Safety C.J. Moore of Ole Miss and defensive end Kevin Strong of U.T. San Antonio were the others. Nauta was signed back to the practice squad.
If you can play, they’ll find a place for you.
Slap vs. step: Murray is less concerned than anyone about whether to step with his foot or slap his hands to get the ball snapped from center. Some penalties were called in the preseason because of the snap.
“I really don’t care, to be honest,” Murray said last week. “The ball’s going to get snapped somewhere.”
Barry, Barry, Barry memory: It was 30 seasons ago that Barry Sanders played his first NFL game on opening day of 1989 with one day of limited practice. A contract squabble kept him away from the Lions until late in the week of the first regular-season game.
After sitting out until the third quarter he gained 18 yards on a run that electrified the Silverdome crowd the way he cut and drafted through would-be tacklers. He had eight more carries – with a 26-yard gain and a three-yard TD run among them – to finish the day with 71 yards on nine carries.
The Lions lost the game, but Sanders won the moment – as he did with every carry of his career.
Up front: We saw too little of the Lions’ offensive and defensive lines in the preseason to make any firm judgments on how they’ll perform, but more should be expected of the defensive line, based on reputation and past performances.
Reversal: I don’t expect a repeat of last season’s opener, when the Lions rushed for 39 yards and gave up 169 on the ground vs. the Jets.
Run threat: I expect the Lions to develop a run threat that will lead to more big throws downfield by Stafford. That includes the tight ends working the middle in combinations that opens space for others.
Sticking with my pick: It’s an important game for the Lions – one of the biggest openers in recent years – because of what it can represent, win or lose. The Lions have to make something good happen. And they will.
Pick: Lions 27, Cardinals 13. No change in the pick or score from Friday’s check list.