Lions defense to game plan for Vikings’ T.J. Hockenson, but offense doesn’t miss him

Detroit News

Allen Park — T.J. Hockenson’s trade to the Minnesota Vikings came after a fifth straight loss in a Detroit Lions uniform. Naturally, he was excited about the opportunity his change of scenery presented.

“I’m excited to be part of a program that we can do something with and we’re looking beyond 17, looking down the road, for sure. … That’s really what we’re here to do is go somewhere and win some games,” Hockenson said.

“That’s kinda the first time I’ve been able to say that. So I’m pretty excited.”

If only he could have toughed it out just a little bit longer. The Lions since have won four of their last five since trading the former first-round tight end, and are staring at a wild card spot — albeit through the prism of a long, difficult road — as Hockenson returns to Ford Field on Sunday with the NFC North’s best, a 10-2 Vikings squad the Lions nearly beat back in Week 3.

During 3½ seasons in Detroit, the Lions were a measly 12-42-2, and in games he played, Detroit was 10-35-2. In five games played with Minnesota (4-1 in that span), he’s already close to reaching half the win total he amassed with his former team. In that sense, it’s hard to find beef with his desire to play for something more. But unfortunately for him, the Lions are also 4-1 since trading him.

Prior to being sent to Minnesota in early November, Hockenson in seven games this season caught 26 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns. In five games with the Vikings, he’s caught more passes (30) but hasn’t quite been relied on as a downfield threat the way he has in Detroit, averaging 7.5 yards per catch and scoring just once.

“He’s done a good job and he’s the guy — he always shows up when they need him in the red zone, third down, about the time they need something to happen, he’ll show up,” Campbell said. “He’s been a steady player for them.”

Safeties coach Brian Duker noted that they’ve been using him in the intermediate pass game, rather than using him as an option to stretch the field, or relying on him to produce yards after catch.

“It totally adds an issue every time they add another really good player to a really good offense,” Duker said. “You try to devote resources to different areas, right? So, you try to steal from one area and kind of put it in the other, and things like that, and that opens up holes as you do that.

“You can’t double everybody, so it creates some issues out there. … Certainly this week, your individual matchups will be very important.”

On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions haven’t had much trouble accounting for the absence of his production. They’re averaging 28.4 points over their last five games, complete with a 40-point demolition of the Jaguars this past weekend in which Jared Goff was 31-for-41 for 337 yards and two touchdowns.

“I said it from the day we knew we were going to lose some production. I mean, he was a good player, but I do feel like our guys have stepped up. I go back to what I said when all this transpired you had to feel OK about — to do this you had to feel OK about spreading the load throughout the rest of the group and I do,” Campbell said.

“That’s (Amon-Ra St. Brown) Saint, and we’ve got (DJ) Chark back and (Kalif Raymond), and (Josh) Reynolds and now we’ve got Jameson Williams). So, and then just the crop of three tight ends that are out there. (D’Andre) Swift, Jamaal (Williams) more carries. So, and that’s what we’ve done.

“We’ve just spread the load throughout to gain the production that we lost from him.”

nbianchi@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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