Running back Zach Zenner could laugh at a good-natured jab at his dual career paths, and how excelling in one – at least for the moment – could delay moving along into the other that ultimately could be his life's work.
That's the way it is when a football team wins a tough game on the road – especially when you've played a significant role. The mood is brighter. The burden lighter.
This week's Monday Countdown looks at how the roles of some players—with Zenner playing a big one -- produced the Detroit Lions' 17-3 road victory over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday. There are also takeaways on offense and defense, a defensive stat to note, competing against the legendary Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald, and a Final Word on tanking.
We start with Zenner.
1 House call: Zenner had carried only four times this season, and he had been released at the end of the preseason with an injury designation. He remained in Metro Detroit and worked out, with an expectation that the Lions would bring him back if they needed help.
That opportunity arose when Ameer Abdullah was released, and there was a need for another running back to add depth to the rotation.
Zenner was mostly a special teams player until Sunday. He went into the game with 8:14 left, and the Lions clinging to a 10-3 lead after the Cardinals had finally gotten on the board with a field goal.
Zenner did not have advance word from the coaching staff that he would be taking over at running back with the game in the balance.
"No," he said later in the locker room. "They just kept me out there. I kept running the ball. I love running the ball, and today was no different."
He carried on the first play of the possession, getting a 14-yard gain, and he carried on the last – barging through a hole off the left side of the line from a yard out to score the clinching touchdown. In all, he had seven carries for 42 yards.
"You played like a guy who's not in a hurry to be a doctor," one reporter said to Zenner after the Detroit Lions had finished off pummeling the Arizona Cardinals in a 17-3 victory Sunday that was as welcome as it was inelegant for the Lions.
Zenner plans to be a doctor after his football career is over, and he took the joke the way it was intended.
"I love playing football," he said. "I'm going to keep it rolling as long as I can."
2. Group effort: It was slow going all day for both offenses. The Lions never got the passing game going. The running game broke a few plays early but not much else until the final possession.
It was a day of attrition for the Lions, especially on defense, but the offense took a hit when right tackle Rick Wagner went out with a concussion and did not return. Rookie Tyrell Crosby took over and held his own.
The entire unit came together on the possession that ended in Zenner's touchdown.
"We always have that mentality every game that we want to be difference makers in the offense," Zenner said. "That really came out today. The running game is everyone. It's such a team aspect of the game."
3. The Defenders: The defense played the first 56 minutes knowing that one slip might lose the game. It never really slipped. In fact it was the opposite. The Lions' only touchdown before Zenner's score was a 67-yard interception return by Darius Slay to give the Lions a 10-0 lead.
"It's fun," cornerback Nevin Lawson said of playing with pressure. "Our job is to keep points off the board and try to give the ball back to the offense."
4. Cardinals' highlight, Fitzgerald: It's another dreary season for the Cardinals, who've had a lot of them in their existence. One bright spot came in the third quarter, when certain Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass.
The crowd exploded in cheers, and Fitzgerald fired the ball across the field to the Cardinals bench.
It didn't mean much in the game, but it meant something in its history. It was Fitzgerald's 1,282nd career catch, the most ever by a player with one team. Fitzgerald is one of the all-time greats who inspires opponents who appreciate his place in the game's history.
"It's an honor competing against him, a guy like that," Lawson said.
5. Offense, takeaways
Personal protection: Matthew Stafford was on the injury report all week because of a back injury sustained from the pounding he took in the previous game against the Rams. The Cardinals have one of the league's best pass rushes, but the offensive line stepped up, giving up one sack and two hits.
Passing yards: The stats speak from themselves – 101 yards passing for Stafford, an average of 4.39 yards per attempt, and a long completion of 17 yards. Something is seriously wrong with the passing game.
Tight end: Levine Toilolo has been the only serious threat in that group in the last two games. He had four catches for 90 yards against the Rams a week ago and came back with two catches for 26 yards against the Cardinals. Meanwhile another misadventure by Michael Roberts – a clear drop on a third-down pass that would have been a first down.
6. Defense, takeaways:
Jarrad Davis: A big game by the middle linebacker – eight tackles, seven of them solo, a sack, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup. His game is coming together.
A'Shawn Robinson: A young tackle who is trending up. He had eight tackles, a sack and two hits.
David Johnson stat: He's one of the best dual threats as a receiver and runner, but he was neutralized in both areas. He rushed for 49 yards on 15 carries and squeaked out only 12 yards on eight receptions. That's an average of 1.5 yards per catch. Johnson had a long reception of 10 yards. His other seven catches gained two yards. That indicates a good job of tackling.
7. Zenner stat: In addition to leading the Lions in rushing with 12 carries for 54 yards he assisted on a tackle on special teams.
8. Final Word: I get the talk about losing on purpose to get a better draft pick, but that's all it is – talk. Watching two teams with losing records compete hard while the injury count on both sides rises throughout the game is evidence enough to know that players don't work that hard and compete that hard to lose. They don't listen to the talk.