Matthew Stafford proves he can stay healthy, is on pace for Lions’ records


Vikings at Lions | 1 p.m. Sunday, Fox

Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Start with a subplot.

Who had Matthew Stafford getting to Game 13 without missing a start? Outside of the coaching staff and Stafford himself, probably not too many.

Stafford, who started just 13 games in his first two seasons combined, will make his 13th straight start against the Vikings on Sunday.

“I never had any concerns of myself,” Stafford said Wednesday when asked if he felt he’d beaten the “fragile” tag. “You guys can answer that question. I am just where I expected to be — healthy and ready to go this week.”

He’s fought through an ankle injury and a fractured index finger on his throwing hand. He’s also fought through a few erratic weeks. Through it all, he’s on a pace to record the most productive season any Lions quarterback has ever had.

“We’ve never doubted his toughness or his durability or anything like that in here,” center Dominic Raiola said. “That’s never been an issue with us. We have complete faith in his ability to lead this offense and get it where we want to go.”

Stafford has thrown for 3,527 yards this season. That’s 811 yards shy of Scott Mitchell’s 1995 team record of 4,338. He needs to average just 203 yards over the last four games to eclipse the record.

He is five touchdown passes shy of Mitchell’s single-season mark of 32. He’s also in range of breaking Jon Kitna’s single-season completion percentage mark of 63.3. Stafford has completed 63 percent through 12 games.

“I don’t think about that stuff,” Stafford said. “All that matters is winning games.”

Playing for something

Which brings us around to the main plot for Sunday — can the Lions shake off all the injuries, fines, suspensions and negativity they’ve dealt with the past couple of weeks and get back to winning games?

“I think the problem for our team, if there is one, is we don’t think we are 7-5,” defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “I think if we start thinking that way, we are going to play that way.”

At the start of the week, Cunningham wrote two large numbers on the board inside the defensive meeting room — a seven and a five.

“I said it was about time we start acting like that team,” Cunningham said. “You lose some and you win some in the NFL, but the final result is to get to the playoffs. People need to start focusing on that in our room.

“We’re not some pushover team. We will play anybody at any time. I am not going to make excuses about injuries, but let’s line up our 11 starters against theirs and see what happens. We will get that chance again down the road and I can’t wait.”

For this week, though, Cunningham’s defense will line up without as many as six key players. All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is serving the second of his two-game suspension. His replacement, rookie Nick Fairley, isn’t likely to play because of a foot injury.

Defensive end Lawrence Jackson (thigh) already has been ruled out.

In the secondary, starting cornerback Chris Houston and starting safety Louis Delmas are expected to miss their second straight games with knee injuries.

Outside linebacker Justin Durant (hamstring) didn’t practice Thursday or Friday and he’s questionable.

“Ain’t nothing to it,” veteran defensive tackle Corey Williams said. “We have guys who will step up if other guys can’t play. Gun’s right, man. We have to realize that we do have something to play for. We’re not just trying to finish off these final games. We’ve got a reason. It’s been 11 years since this team has been in the playoffs.

“We had a good week (of practice); crisp and sharp. We just need to get that winning taste back in our mouths.”

Discipline wanted

The Lions started 5-0. They have gone 2-5 since. Yet, they still control their wild-card destiny. If they can win three of the last four, they stand a good chance of getting in. The question is, can they reclaim that “winning taste” they had earlier in the season. Or are they beyond reclamation.

“I don’t know about reclamation,” said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. “We still have everything in front of us — all our goals that we set out for ourselves. Essentially, our playoffs start this week. We are neck and neck with a bunch of teams, so this is a must-win if we want to keep our playoff hopes alive.”

You have to wonder, though, if they are capable of staying out of their own way. The foolishness has gone on all season.

Going back to post-whistle fouls against Gosder Cherilus and Stephen Peterman in Week 1, to coach Jim Schwartz’s on-field woofing with Cowboys’ receiver Dez Bryant to his postgame verbal shot at Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, to his handshake dustup with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, to a tunnel scuffle before the game against Atlanta, to the team’s open mocking of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow, to Suh’s stomp on Thanksgiving Day, to the three post-whistle fouls last Sunday in New Orleans — it’s been one thing after another.

Officials may or may not be watching with a more wary eye, but opponents will certainly be looking to push their buttons and trigger the temper.

“Officials officiate what they see,” Schwartz said. “But as far as other teams pushing the issue, that’s a reality in the NFL and that’s something the last two weeks we haven’t done a good job responding to.”

Schwartz has spoken privately to the team captains and the captains have carried his message to the players. Whether the message has sunk in, the jury is still out.

“I don’t know that it’s a reflection of the leadership or the coaching,” Vanden Bosch said. “I think the mistakes are on the individual. Guys need to understand that you can’t do things because you feel you’ve been wronged (on the field) and go after guys. You have to understand that has an effect on what we’re doing as a team.

“We are an aggressive team and we have a history of not backing down. We need to understand that’s what we are — a physical, aggressive team. But we need to handle that between the whistles.”

As Schwartz said repeatedly this week — it’s down to a four-game season and the margin for error, for selfishness, for any on-field indiscretion is nil.

“We understand we can’t continue to beat ourselves anymore,” Vanden Bosch said. “We’re a good team, we just need to be a little more disciplined. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, and play smart, everything should work out for us.”

Vikings at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Records: Minnesota 2-10, Detroit 7-5

Line: Lions by 91/2

Series: Minnesota leads 66-32-2 (Detroit 26-23, OT, Sept. 25, 2010)

Did you know? Of their four remaining games, the Lions play two teams with winning records (Raiders and Packers).

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

Bob Wojnowski: This Lions team can contend, unlike some others we’ve seen


Bob Wojnowski

Allen Park

Go ahead and say it, even if it’s premature, even if it sounds kind of funny and almost never gets said around here.

The Lions are a playoff team. Yep, they are. Or should be. Or will be.

They look like it, they snarl like it, and most important, they go on the road and play like it. The Lions are 6-2 at the bye after spending Sunday in Denver treating their opponent as if picking wings off flies. The Lions have a brutishness about them that makes some people uncomfortable, but is mostly necessary in the NFL.

Hey, if drama addicts want to slap labels of “evil” and “dirty” on the Lions, so be it. Those are much better than previous labels of “irrelevant” and “horrific.”

But it’s apparent they aren’t just some nasty bunch that knock quarterbacks and “quarterbacks” (hello, Tim Tebow) on their derrieres. Ndamukong Suh plans a trip to New York this week to make that point with commissioner Roger Goodell. Suh plays on the edge and occasionally crosses it, but I think his intentions are more about impunity than impurity.

The Lions want their defense to be intimidating, and it can be. What they did to Tebow in that 45-10 pasting wasn’t mean. It was predictable. And linebacker Stephen Tulloch swears no disrespect was intended by his post-sack pose, when he went down on a knee to mimic the “Tebowing” craze.

The Lions push the envelope when it comes to abrasiveness, and they do have to be careful. No sense doing too much “Suh-bowing” or “Elbowing.” But they shouldn’t care what anyone calls them as long as they’re not committing dumb penalties, and as long as they push the pocket as well as the envelope.

The Lions sacked Tebow seven times and are third in the league with 24, behind only the Giants and Ravens.

“I think you get an edge by doing things that are within your personality,” coach Jim Schwartz said Monday. “For us, that’s rushing the quarterback, sacking the quarterback, making big plays. Those are the things we want people to respect about us. Those are the things we want people to fear about us.”

Those are the things that turn middlin’ teams into playoff teams. I’m sure you’re aware the Lions haven’t made the playoffs since the 1999 season, when Bobby Ross was the coach and Gus Frerotte (!) was the quarterback.

Challenges ahead

The schedule toughens considerably now, starting with a visit to Chicago after the bye. There are two meetings with Green Bay and trips to New Orleans and Oakland. But the Lions have won six straight on the road after dropping a tidy 26 in a row.

A mere split of the final eight games makes them 10-6 and a potential wild card. If you’re into all the probability gobbledygook, a 6-2 team has a 79.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Stats, LLC (since 1990). Here’s an even better number: A team that wins its first four road games has a 91.4 percent chance.

And you thought you’d be bored in January. I’m risking looking foolish here, but that’s OK. The Lions actually are loaded with talent, and that’s not a loaded statement. Nor am I loaded right now. On the Fox broadcast Sunday, former NFL safety John Lynch suggested the Lions have as much talent as any team in the league.

Not sure about that, but they do have as much defensive-line talent as anybody. For all the acclaim about Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, don’t overlook Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson. Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew said they’d rebuild by unleashing mayhem upon opposing quarterbacks, and that’s one way — maybe the best way — to win in the NFL.

Times have changed

Having a franchise quarterback is another way, and Matthew Stafford has overcome injuries and bouts with accuracy doubts to put up impressive numbers — 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

A growing dynamic is the way the defense complements the offense.

Against the Broncos, Avril had a 24-yard fumble return for a touchdown, and underrated cornerback Chris Houston added a 100-yard interception return. You could say both bear asterisks because they came against Tebow, but that’s mean.

You know what playoff teams do? They win on the road. They sack the quarterback. They create turnovers, and the Lions are third in the league with 11 interceptions. Their run defense is still a concern (ranked 30th), but interestingly, they lead the league in forcing three-and-outs, a statistic Schwartz clearly likes.

“The ability to get the ball back quickly for our offense is important,” he said. “We have an explosive offense, but we have big-play capability on defense too.”

No one would be goofy enough to guarantee a playoff berth. Not even me. Of course, the Lions were 6-2 in 2007 after blasting the Broncos, 44-7, and proceeded to finish 1-7, which laid the groundwork for 0-16. Other than still playing in Ford Field and wearing the same color scheme, these Lions bear no resemblance to those Lions.

Home losses to the 49ers and Falcons were eye-openers, and evidence a punishing ground game is something the Lions lack, and have trouble stopping. That could be an issue against tougher teams. But the Lions have proven they can win almost anywhere (Tampa, Dallas) and almost any way.

Officially, they’ve accomplished nothing so far, other than building an identity that a lot of people are noticing. It’s what playoff-worthy teams do, in case we’d forgotten.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Lions tickets moving fast; Monday night game sells out


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park — Lions fever may be at an all-time high.

About 500 fans showed up at the Ford Field box office — some as early as 5 a.m. Wednesday — to lay their claim to individual Lions game tickets. They sold out the Monday night game Oct. 10 against the Bears in about 45 minutes.

“And other tickets are moving fast, too,” said Lions president Tom Lewand. “For the Thanksgiving Day game (against the Packers) there were just a few left.”

Lewand said he was blown away by the box office turnout.

“That’s surprising to us that in this day and age of the Internet and toll-free calls, people still came out to the box office,” he said.

The Lions have also sold out Saturday’s exhibition game against the New England Patriots; it will be shown live locally on CBS.

“People are voting with their pocket books and making an investment in us,” Lewand said. “And that is an investment we have to honor and respect. It is up to us now to deliver a return on that investment.”

Ron Olkowski, 50, drove more than an hour from Richmond to buy a few pairs of tickets for him and his 16-year-old son, who plays football for Romeo High. The father was in line outside Ford Field by 8:30 a.m.

“True fans come out here,” he said. “Anyone can sit at their computer, drink coffee and click a button.”

Olkowski had a half-season ticket plan last year, but chose to buy single-game tickets this year because the package didn’t include either of this season’s premium games — the Monday night game against the Bears or the Thanksgiving game against the Packers. Last season his half-season package included the Thanksgiving game against the Patriots.

On Wednesday he waited more than two hours to buy tickets against the Chiefs (Sept. 18, home opener), 49ers (Oct. 16) and Vikings (Dec. 11). And as he walked away from the ticket booth, he asked, “These are all guaranteed victories, right?”

On the field

On the practice field Wednesday, running back Jahvid Best returned to practice, though the team is in shorts. He has been cleared of any post-concussion symptoms.

Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (shoulder) is not practicing.

Both Best and Vanden Bosch won’t play against the Patriots.

Lions schedule

Sun., Sept 11 — at Tampa Bay, 1

Sun., Sept. 18 — Kansas City, 1

Sun., Sept. 25 — at Minnesota, 1

Sun., Oct. 2 — at Dallas, 1

Mon., Oct. 10 — Chicago, 8:30

Sun., Oct. 16 — San Francisco, 1

Sun., Oct. 23 — Atlanta, 1

Sun., Oct. 30 — at Denver, 4

Sun., Nov. 13 — at Chicago, 1

Sun., Nov. 20 — Carolina, 1

Thu., Nov. 24 — Green Bay, 12:30

Sun., Dec. 4 — at New Orleans, 1

Sun., Dec. 11 — Minnesota, 1

Sun., Dec. 18 — at Oakland, 4

Sat., Dec. 24 — San Diego, 4

Sun., Jan. 1 — at Green Bay, 1

Josh Katzenstein contributed to this report.

Lions sign pair to replace Mikel Leshoure


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— It’s closing in on midnight, Oct. 13, 2010. Two seemingly angry young men approach each other at a terminal gate inside Hopkins Airport in Cleveland. One has just arrived from Philadelphia; the other is bound for Philadelphia.

“Hey,” running back Mike Bell said.

“Hey,” running back Jerome Harrison said.

Both were having unproductive seasons and had been traded for each other — Bell from the Eagles to the Browns, Harrison from the Browns to the Eagles.

“He had a mad look on his face and I had a mad look on my face,” Bell said of the encounter.

They crossed paths again Tuesday. This time, they were headed in the same direction — in the same SUV bound for the Lions practice facility — with much sunnier dispositions.

The Lions signed both running backs to compete for the No. 2 spot, essentially replacing rookie Mikel Leshoure, whose season ended Monday with a torn left Achilles tendon.

“Both are experienced players and both have produced at a high level in the NFL,” coach Jim Schwartz said after the two participated in their first practice. “They have different skills but both have a good resume. Hopefully we can get them up to speed quickly.”

Both are 28 and have shown flashes of brilliance, but have spent the majority of their time in supporting roles.

Harrison (5-foot-9, 205 pounds), a product of Kalamazoo Central, had his breakout year in 2009 when he amassed more than 1,000 yards for the Browns (862 rushing, 220 receiving). He’s more of a home run threat than Bell, having a pair of runs of 70-plus yards during his career, including a 50-yarder last season with the Eagles.

Harrison ran for 286 yards in one game in 2009.

“Dreams come true sometimes,” he said when asked about that game. “It was a great day but it’s in the past.”

He chafes at being classified as anything but a multi-purpose runner.

“I’ve been running the football since I was 6 years old,” he said. “Anything you ask me to do, I will try my hardest to do it. I’m just going to work and whatever they ask me to do I’m going to do. I want to help in any way.”

Things went sour in a hurry for Harrison in Cleveland. He was miffed he wasn’t given a contract extension after 2009. And he could see the writing on the wall when he found himself playing behind Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty.

But he wasn’t in the mood to dredge up the past Tuesday.

“None of that, man, I am here now and I am excited,” he said.

Bell’s mission is even more redemptive than Harrison’s. After rushing for 654 yards and helping the Saints win the Super Bowl in 2009, Bell pretty much fell off the grid. He was the third back first in Philadelphia and then in Cleveland. Combined, he had 47 carries last season.

“The first team that called is where I was going — I was one of those guys,” said Bell, who is bigger than Harrison — 6-0, 225 — and considered more of a between-the-tackles runner.

“I was not highly recruited, so to speak. I just wanted to get a call and I would be on the first thing smoking.”

When Bell has gotten the ball, he’s produced. He had 677 yards as a rookie in Denver in 2006. Then, after bouncing around the next two seasons, he posted 654 yards with New Orleans. Last year was mostly a lost year.

“I was so unproductive last year, I didn’t think I would get much opportunity,” he said. “I didn’t play much with the Eagles and I didn’t play much with the Browns. There was LeSean McCoy, an all-Pro-type back, in Philly, and Peyton Hillis, an all-Pro-type back, in Cleveland.

“It was nothing that I did or didn’t do but I know I was stigmatized.”

Bell, however, knows the situation in Detroit.

Jahvid Best, a fleet-footed game-breaker, is the featured back. Leshoure was targeted to be the power guy to complement Best. Bell thinks his running style fits that description.

“This opportunity means everything,” he said. “The fact that they chose me is a blessing. I bring hard running and I can get the tough yards. But I feel like I am faster now (having not played much last year) and I am trying to open my game up.”

Both also understand there are no guarantees.

Maurice Morris, the team’s most productive runner at the end of last season, is out with a hand injury. But he, too, is in the hunt for the spot.

Both seemed fired up by the competition.

“I was shocked,” Bell said. “This team is good. Definitely all the rumors out there about the Lions being a playoff contender are true. They hustle. There’s a lot of positive energy out here, guys making plays and running to the ball. It’s a blessing to be here and I am glad to be part of the rise of the Lions.”

Getting to know … Mike Bell

Position: Running back

Ht./Wt.: 6-0/225

Birth date: April 23, 1983 (Phoenix)

College: Arizona

Experience: 6th season

Teams: Browns, Eagles, Saints, Broncos

 Rushing

 Receiving

Jerome Harrison

Position: Running back

Ht./Wt.: 5-9/205

Birth date: Feb. 26, 1983 (Kalamazoo)

College: Washington State

Experience: 6th season

Teams: Eagles, Browns

 Rushing

 Receiving

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

NFL players object to more games


Roundup

Detroit News wire services / Detroit News wire services

Washington— Concerns about injuries and insurance make the league’s push to switch to an 18-game regular season a major sticking point in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, according to two NFL players who are members of the union’s executive committee. The NFL wants to add two games to the current 16-game format for the regular season, and eliminate two of four preseason games, saying fans would prefer that and more revenue could be generated.

“To me, right now, as things stand, 18 games, the way it’s being proposed, is completely unacceptable. … I see more and more players get injured every season,” Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said Tuesday on a media conference call arranged by the union.

Advertisement



Both Fujita and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, the other player participating in Tuesday’s call, went on IR in 2010.

“We put our bodies on the line and produce a lot of revenue and we get five years of post-retirement health insurance,” said Foxworth, who missed all season after tearing his right knee during an orientation practice the day before training camp. “And then they want to tack on two more games. … which is just going to multiply the injuries and the ailments that we’re going to see.”

Coaching carousel

The Panthers hired Ron Rivera as coach, making the San Diego defensive coordinator the second Latino head coach in NFL history.

Rivera replaces John F ox , who was let go earlier this month after Carolina went 2-14 in his ninth season.

… Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams withdrew his name from consideration for the Broncos job.

Rick Dennison , who spent almost a quarter century with the Broncos as a linebacker and an assistant coach, interviewed for Denver’s head coaching vacancy.

… The Browns interviewed Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to be their coach.

Fewell is the third known candidate to formally meet with Browns president Mike Holmgren , who fired Eric Mangini last week. The Browns have also interviewed Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (Michigan State) and Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey .

Playoffs Wild card

Saturday, Jan. 8

Seattle 41, New Orleans 36

N.Y. Jets 17, Indianapolis 16

Sunday, Jan. 9

Baltimore 30, Kansas City 7

Green Bay 21, Philadelphia 16

Divisional

Saturday’s games

Baltimore at Pittsburgh, 4:30 p.m. CBS

Green Bay at Atlanta, 8 p.m. Fox

Sunday’s games

Seattle at Chicago, 1 p.m. Fox

N.Y. Jets at New England, 4:30 p.m. CBS