When the Detroit Lions were in a pinch in their season-opener against the Arizona Cardinals, they looked in all the unusual places for help.
That meant their Pro Bowl kicker had to punt in an NFL game for the first time in his life. A rookie defensive lineman had to play one down at fullback in an important situation. Another rookie handled punt returns flawlessly, and two second-year players made major contributions.
Of course, their franchise quarterback had to play like a franchise quarterback. Which Matthew Stafford did again, of course.
What we learned in the Lions' 35-23 win over the Cardinals Sunday is that the NFL is a game dominated by stars, but it's also a make-do league. Not everything goes according to plan. There are always surprises from unexpected sources, from players who rise to the moment.
Here are five players who did the unexpected Sunday, and the bottom line on what we learned:
Kicker-punter: Matt Prater had never punted in an NFL game in his previous 10 seasons. He was pressed into duty when Kasey Redfern went out with a knee injury in the first quarter. Prater punted four times for an average of 34.8 yards, which is below standards for even an average NFL punter.
However, the Cardinals did not return any of the four punts, leaving Prater with a net average for the game of 34.8 yards, and he dropped one punt inside the 20. Prater did not try to set any punting records. He caught the snaps, punted quickly and in rhythm, and did his best. And it was good enough.
He also kicked off, as he has done often in his career, putting four of five kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. And he did his regular job – kicking field goals – to perfection. He made his only attempt, a 58-yard boomer, on the last play of the first half to cut the Cardinals' lead to 10-9 and give the Lions some momentum going into the second half.
Bottom line: We learned that a kicker is a Pro Bowler because he reacts like a pro in adversity.
Two-way rookie: Defensive end Alex Barrett made the roster as an undrafted free agent and was part of the defensive line rotation, playing 14 of 71 snaps. But his biggest contribution was one snap at fullback on offense in the second quarter.
Barrett lined up at fullback in front of Dwayne Washington on a third and one at the Cardinals' 10 and helped clear the way for Washington to gain six yards and a first down at the four. Two plays later, the Lions had their first touchdown – on Stafford's pass to Marvin Jones Jr. – to cut Arizona's deficit to 10-6. The Lions did not get the extra point because holder Jake Rudock couldn't handle the snap.
Bottom line: The Lions do not have a fullback on the roster this year, and somebody saw something in Barrett that could be used in small doses. We learned what it means to use the entire roster.
Safety in numbers: It was a big day for the Lions' safeties. Starters Tavon Wilson and Glover Quin both had interceptions, as did Miles Killebrew, a promising second-year backup. Killebrew returned his pick for a touchdown to complete a four-TD blitz that took the Lions from a 17-9 deficit to a clinching 35-17 lead.
Killebrew made a small play in the first quarter that might have been bigger than the pick.
On third and goal at the Lions' two, Carson Palmer hit tight end Jermaine Gresham with a short pass to the right. Killebrew reacted quickly to get in Greshman's way, and with help from pursuing teammates Gresham was thrown for a four-yard loss. That forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal and a 10-0 lead instead of getting a touchdown to make it 14-0.
Bottom line: As a fourth-round draft pick last season, Killebrew played two defensive snaps on opening day and steadily became more valuable. We learned what development means.
Happy returns: Rookie cornerback Jamal Agnew hadn't shown much in the return game since breaking a punt return 75 yards-plus in the mock game at Ford Field.
That changed on opening day. He handled all the punt returns Sunday without a hitch and took over kickoff returns later.
Agnew averaged 16 yards on three punt returns. He had a long return of 24 yards when he tracked a 57-yard punt like a baseball outfielder. Agnew caught the ball at the nine and turned upfield through an opening to give the offense possession at the 33.
Ten plays later the Lions had a touchdown on Stafford's 10-yard pass to rookie Kenny Golladay and a 21-17 lead that they would never surrender.
Bottom line: We learned that the coaching staff saw enough in Agnew to use him when it counts.
Starter, sack: Anthony Zettel started at defensive end and had the Lions only sack. He had another tackle for loss and was generally a nuisance to the Cardinals all day.
Bottom line: As a sixth-round draft pick last year, Zettel was inactive on opening day but was effective when he played. Like Killebrew, we learned – again – what development means.