Ameer Abdullah spent almost four months of last season preparing to play his next game, working and hoping that it would be sometime in the 2016 season.
That didn't happen. His "next game" is Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, and it's more special than usual for Abdullah than most season openers.
"It means a lot," he said this week.
Abdullah's 2016 season ended because of a foot injury sustained late in the second quarter of Game 2 against the Tennessee Titans – an ultimate 16-15 loss for the Lions.
As Sunday approaches, Abdullah feels a sense of excitement and fulfillment that the hard work in his rehab program is paying off in his recovery.
"I worked really hard," he said. "You won't see me posting a bunch of workout videos. That's something I've always done. I'm the youngest of nine (in his family). I've always had to work to be noticed in my family. We have a lot of successful people.
"That's something I pride myself on. I worked my tail off. I don't expect anything but good for myself and my team."
Abdullah's return as the No. 1 tailback means as much to the offense as it does to him. He is a dual-threat playmaker as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. With Abdullah and Theo Riddick at the top of the rotation, there is good depth to go with veterans Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington, plus rookie Tion Green.
In 18 games in his two seasons – all 16 as a rookie and last year's two-game cameo – Abdullah has 698 yards rushing and 240 receiving. He showed good development, with an average of 5.6 yards per run and 11.4 per catch in a 2016 season reduced to six quarters.
"Ameer creates big plays in the run game at a pretty high clip," said offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. "He also creates big plays in the pass game. He's an explosive player.
"He looks good running around out there – looks healthy – and he's excited to get going this year."
One man's opinion: There are a handful of players on every team whose value is based on quality of production, not volume. Abdullah has that value for the Lions. He can create space, and missed angles, on a defender with one cut and acceleration.
In games like Sunday's, when the Lions are slight underdogs against the Cardinals, players like that can even the balance. It's a tough game against a team with some matchup advantages, but the Lions have shown resilience in the past. Time to do it again.
Prediction: Lions 25, Cardinals 22.
Series history: The Lions have a 31-28 series lead with five ties, but the Cardinals have won the last seven, from 2006-2015.
Last meeting, 2015: The Lions' 42-17 loss to the Cardinals at Ford Field in 2015 was a low point for the team and Matthew Stafford. It made the Lions' won-loss record 0-5, and Stafford was benched for performance for the only time in his career.
View photos of the starters for the Arizona Cardinals.
Stafford had three passes intercepted. After No. 3 in the third quarter, head coach Jim Caldwell benched him in favor of Dan Orlovsky – a move that obviously had Stafford hacked off to level 10.
David Johnson 16, Lions 16: It looks like a tie, but it's not. Johnson had 16 rushing touchdowns in 2016. As a team, the Lions have had 16 rushing touchdowns in the last two seasons combined – seven in 2015, nine in 2016.
Cardinals 48, Lions 26: Those are the team sack totals for last season. However, an ankle injury sustained in the second game hampered Ziggy Ansah the rest of the season. He had only two sacks after reaching a career-high 14.5 in 2015. Ansah should hit double digits again if he's close to full strength for the season.
8-8: It's a legitimate tie on the sacks produced last season by a player that both teams have to replace on the defensive line. The Lions lost Kerry Hyder Jr. for the season to an Achilles injury in the first preseason game. The Cardinals lost Calais Campbell, who signed with Jacksonville as a free agent after nine seasons in Arizona.
Lions' focus – efficient offense: The Cardinals do a lot of things well on defense, and the pressure is on the offense to handle it.
Arizona led the NFL in sacks last year with 48, and they have talent in the secondary. It's a tough combination – pressure up front, with coverage behind it – and the offense has to find a way to deal with it.
Back from last season are the Cardinals' top two sack leaders – weak-side linebacker Markus Golden (12.5) and strong-side linebacker Chandler Jones (11). Behind them are play-making Pro Bowlers with talent and instincts – cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
"That's a good recipe right there," Stafford said of the pass rush-coverage combination. "They do a nice job. They've got guys who can play man coverage and make it tough on you as an offense – play man coverage and really create one-on-one matchups in the pass protection schemes as well.
"They're about creating one-on-ones and betting that their guys are going to win more one-on-ones than you are. That's a challenge – a fun one.
"You enjoy those challenges."
Cardinals' focus – dual threat: David Johnson is a special running back, and he probably could be a special wide receiver if that's where the Cardinals chose to play him.
In Johnson's case, statistics tell the story of his versatility. He rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 TDs last season and had 80 catches for 879 yards and four more TDs. Johnson was converted from wide receiver to running back at Northern Iowa, and his receiving background is apparent in the way he routes and his overall knowledge of the passing game.
"He has the entire route tree," said Lions offensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "He'll run deep. He'll run slants. He'll run unders. He runs all the different things. He runs most routes that are receiver routes."
That versatility puts pressure on the secondary because of the opportunity it can create for Johnson's teammates, said Lions safety Glover Quin.
"They use him very smartly," Quin said. "He can catch the ball. He can run after the catch. He can do all those things. You don't want to play too shallow. You've got speed guys on the outside who are rolling. It tricky. It takes a lot of study, a lot of preparation to make sure we're in tune to the game."