Panthers-Lions Final Thoughts:Reliability and trust raise TJ Jones' stock to perform in a big game; Panther to watch; thoughts from the Think Tank and sticking with my pick and why:
In a sports world gone mad over statistics and analytics, sometimes a word is worth a million numbers.
"Trust" and "reliability" are two words that define what TJ Jones has brought to the Detroit Lions' receiving corps in his role as a sure-handed handyman.
As the Lions piece together elements of their offense to create a more potent and consistent attack, Jones has been invaluable. In a backup role that requires him to know all of the receiver positions, he has eight catches for 128 yards, with an average of 16 yards per catch.
In another tough game against a Panthers defense that has talent at all three levels, Jones could be an important contributor in an offense that has yet to develop a game-breaking player.
"TJ's extremely reliable," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said this week. "Good quickness. Gets open a lot. Catches the ball. Versatile. Can play multiple positions at receiver. Can handle a pretty heavy workload mentally."
Jones' playing time has increased because of an injury to rookie Kenny Golladay.
When Golladay went out against Atlanta two weeks ago, Jones played 15 snaps and caught three passes on three targets for 63 yards. In last week's win over the Vikings, Jones played 46 snaps and had three receptions on five targets for 33 yards in an attack that was focused more heavily on the run game.
It's important to Jones that Cooter and Matthew Stafford have faith in his reliability, and that he won't take plays off when he's not a primary receiver.
"It's priceless," Jones said. "Trust in every aspect of life is big. To have it form the quarterback, from the play-call, the offensive coordinator and really any coach on the staff – you want their trust.
"The more they trust you, the more opportunities you get. The more you get to play. It's where I'm at now -- making the most of every play I get.
"You never know what play is going to come to you. There are a couple catches this year where I haven't been the primary read. You never know when the ball's going to get to you."
Panther to watch: From the Vikings' Dalvin Cook last week to Christian McCaffrey today, there's another multi-skilled rookie running back for the Lions to defend.
Cook showed why the Vikings traded up to take him in the second round. He had 66 yards rushing and the Vikings' only touchdown before going out with a season-ending knee injury midway through the fourth quarter.
McCaffrey, a college star at Stanford, was drafted eighth overall to add versatility and speed to Carolina's backfield. McCaffrey has done that more as a receiver and return man than as a runner.
McCaffrey has 31 carries for 89 yards – 2.9 yards per carry with a long run of 11 yards. He has 22 receptions for 206 yards, a 9.4-yard average per catch and a long reception of 37 yards.
The Lions did not match up well against speed backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the loss to the Falcons. Carolina does not have a twin speed threats, but the Lions have to do better against McCaffrey.
"Shifty," is how middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead described McCaffrey. "He's extremely quick. He's a headache. He's a good football player. He's fast, has good hands. They hand the ball off to him, he ducks his shoulder up in there and tries to churn out some hard yards.
"They picked up a good football player."
Ford tough: The Lions have been good at home since Jim Caldwell became head coach in 2014, posting a won-loss record of 18-8 at Ford Field. They were especially good in the two seasons they made the playoffs as a wild card, going 7-1 at home in 2014 and 6-2 last year.
They've lost two straight home games only once under Caldwell – 24-12 to Denver and 42-17 to Arizona in the dreadful 0-5 start in 2015. The Lions do not want to add a second home loss to the 30-26 defeat by Atlanta two weeks ago.
Run game, Panthers: They are rightfully regarded as having a powerful ground game, led by Jonathan Stewart with QB Cam Newton adding to it. The Panthers have 465 yards through five games. Stewart leads the team with 230, a 3.9-yard average, no TDs with a long run of 17 yards and a nine-yard TD catch his longest.
Run game, Lions: It has yet to be defined. The Lions have 388 yards, led by Ameer Abdullah with 257, a 3.9-yard average, one TD and a long run of 34 yards and along reception of 22 yards.
Run game, bottom line: Same results per carry for the starting tailbacks, with Abdullah having the big-play advantage.
Tight end snaps: Last week's game was the first this year when Darren Fells had more snaps than Eric Ebron by a wide margin. Fells played 51 of 70 offensive snaps, compared to 31 for Ebron. Against the Giants in Week 2, Fells had a two-snap margin – 41-39. In the other two games the snap count favored Ebron by margins of 51-32 and 45-29.
Was last week a game-specific decision, or has Fells' reliability moved him into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart? Fells and Ebron both were official starts as the Lions opened their first possession with two tight ends.
"We go in with a pretty clear picture of what we'd like to get done," head coach Jim Caldwell said when asked about the tight end snap counts. "But often times, as soon as things start rolling along, some of those ideas change in terms of matchups.
"But ideally, I think you can anticipate and count on that he (Fells) can be a factor in any ballgame for us. He really can."
Prediction: The timing of this game will define the Lions more than any other going forward. After Game 5, the offense should be more of a scoring threat than a time-eater, as has been the case. It didn't show up last week, when the Vikings mauled Stafford for nine hits, with six sacks, but there were some gains in the running game.
While the big picture ultimately will come into full focus, small gains are enough for now.
Home field makes the difference:
Lions 26, Panthers 17.