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O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: 2017 Lions one tough team

The bottom line on the Detroit Lions' first quarter looks good. They're 3-1, with Sunday's 14-7 road win over the Minnesota Vikings the most recent addition to their win column, and tied with the Green Bay Packers for first place in the NFC North.

The first quarter is a good measuring point for the Lions. In the critical area of wins and losses, then are better than last year's team that made the playoffs at 9-7.

The 2016 team started 1-3 – with a close loss to the Titans on a fourth-down TD pass late in the game.

The 2017 team is 3-1 – with a close loss to the Falcons on a third-down pass that was ruled a TD on the field, then overturned by replay. The Lions did not get a chance on fourth down. The game ended on a 10-second runoff under NFL rules.

By record, the Lions are two games better than they were last year, but that's not all head coach Jim Caldwell considered when asked after Sunday's game how the Lions shape up.

"I think after a quarter of a game you get a good sense of your team, and where you are," he said. "And our guys are going to fight you."

At the risk of overworking a word I've used often this year to describe the Lions, this is one tough team. Toughness is the theme of this week's Monday Countdown, with comments from key players, new and old, on the team's character and makeup.

There's look at what Ameer Abdullah means to the offense in both his bid to end the team's 100-yard rushing drought, and his work on a three-yard TD run.

There's also a look at what role the schedule played, the ins and outs of the tight end position Sunday, one of the most important 24-yard losses of any season and an unsung player who at the start the season probably would have been the least likely Lion to contribute to a victory over the Vikings.

We end with a question of whether the Lions might achieve new stature in the upcoming power rankings.

We start with guard T.J. Lang, a veteran of four games with the Lions:

1. Winner's view: Lang was signed by the Lions this year as a priority free agent after eight seasons with the Packers. The Packers made the playoffs all eight years, from his rookie year in 2009 through last season. The Packers own the NFC North five of the last six seasons, and the 2010 team won the Super Bowl. 

"I think we've got a number of great leaders in this locker room, first of all," he said. "That keeps guys enthusiastic. It's a team that, so far we've shown we don't give up no matter what's going on in the game, we go out and grind and grind. 

"We know it's not always going to be pretty. We do whatever it takes to go out there and get a win.

"I don't think anybody in here is celebrating too much. Guys know we have a lot of work to do, especially on the offensive side to get to the level the rest of the team is playing at.

"Once we do that, we can really separate ourselves as a team and make a lot of good things happen."

2. Doom's Day schedule: That's how most expert analysts looked at the start of the season for the Lions, with the first quarter front loaded with the Cardinals, Giants, Falcons and Vikings.

Get through that at 2-2, and the rest would be gravy.

It hasn't worked that way. The Cardinals are 1-2, with a loss to Detroit, going into tonight's game against the 49ers. The Giants are 0-4. The Falcons are 3-1 after Sunday's loss to the Bills, and the Lions' win Sunday made the Vikings 2-2.

The Lions have handled the start, as opposed to the start handicapping the Lions.

Like Lang, Matthew Stafford expects the offense to catch up to the defense and special teams and carry more of the weight.

"We need to get it going a little bit," he said. "We've played some really tough defenses. We still have to be better. It's nice to be where we are at 3-1. We have to keep going.

"It (the team) is a lot like teams we've had in the past. We play hard for each other. We don't care about anything else except winning.

"We're all pulling for each other when we're out there."

3. AA for effort: Ameer Abdullah didn't get his first 100-yard rushing game as a pro – which would have broken the Lions drought of 55 games without an individual 100-yard rushing game. Last to do it was Reggie Bush, in Game 12 of 2013 against the Packers.

Abdullah had 94 yards on 20 carries when he went out in the fourth quarter with an injury that Caldwell indicated after the game was not serious.  

It was a 100-yard effort, and then some, but the stats don't show it.

4. Abdullah's value: Through four games he's been the running game, with 257 yards on 66 carries and a 3.9-yard average per carry. Stafford is next with 53 yards on 10 scrambles.

The other tailbacks have combined to gain 59 yards on 29 carries – an average of 2.034 yards per carry.

5. Abdullah TD: He scored the Lions' only touchdown on one of the hardest three-yard runs you'll ever see. On second and goal at the three, Abdullah hit the middle and finally emerged from the pile of bodies with a lunge to get the ball over the goal line. Stafford's throw to TJ Jones for the two-point conversion gave the Lions a 14-7 lead.

Stafford talked Sunday about sticking with the run, something the Lions have done this year.

"A great run," he said of Abdullah's effort. "That's one of the ones I was kind of talking about, where initially maybe he's stymied in the backfield and it kind of looks like there wasn't much there.

"The guys up front just kept pushing. He runs with great pad level and physicality."

6. Important loss: Hard to imagine, but a 24-yard loss in the third quarter could have been worse for the Lions. Stafford, who was sacked six times and pressured often, released a pass under pressure that rolled backward. Officials ruled it an incomplete pass.

The Vikings challenged the call on the field, claiming it was a backward pass, and thus a live ball. Replays upheld the challenge.

Zach Zenner alertly chased down the ball and fell on it at the 11 for a 24-yard loss – and fourth down, letting the Lions punt. A recovery by the Vikings could have been a fumble return for a touchdown, or a possession that would have given them at least a chip-shot field goal attempt.

Zenner's alert pursuit and recovery was an example of a role player keeping his head in the game.

7. Locke for least likely: Jeff Locke was signed by the Lions before Game 2 after Kasey Redfern went out with a season-ending knee injury.

Locke was drafted by the Vikings in 2013, the same year the Lions drafted Sam Martin, and punted for them from 2013-16. He signed with the Colts this year and was let go in the final cut.

While Martin remains ineligible to play while on the non-football injury list, Locke has punted well with a 45.5-yard gross average and a 41.8 net for three games. Locke had a strong punting game Sunday, with a gross average of 46.4 yards and a net of 44.1 on seven punts.

8. Tight end targets: Darren Fells had the hot hand early Sunday for the Lions with four catches for 40 yards in the first half before Eric Ebron caught a ball. Ebron had a self-admitted poor performance in the previous game against the Falcons.  

Fells did not have another catch, and Ebron would end up with two catches for 27 yards.

Also in the first half, Fells subbed for Ebron on a third and 16, an obvious passing down.

What did that tight end shuffle mean? Probably not a lot, but it's a position worth watching.

9. Second quarter: Here's the schedule: Home against Carolina (3-1), at New Orleans (2-2), bye, home against Pittsburgh (3-1) on a Sunday night, at Green Bay (3-1) on a Monday night.

On paper, it doesn't look any easier than the first four games looked on paper.

The four opponents have a combined won-loss record of 11-5.

Which means getting through a tough first quarter sets the Lions up for a tougher second quarter.

10. Power ranking wondering: Will the Lions be ranked ahead of the Patriots this week? The Patriots are 2-2 and rank first in the league in points scored (129) and second worst in points allowed (128).

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