Detroit Lions want to make Vikings TE T.J. Hockenson ‘feel us’ in Ford Field return

Detroit Free Press

Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson was joking with teammate David Blough before his return to Ford Field this week that the two ex-Detroit Lions might stumble into the wrong locker room by accident.

“It’s going to be fun going over there, seeing everybody and then doing our thing,” Hockenson told Minnesota reporters Thursday. “Yeah, I can’t wait, honestly.”

A first-round pick by the Lions in 2019, Hockenson will play his first game in Detroit as a visitor Sunday when the Lions (5-7) host the Vikings (10-2) in a battle of NFC playoff contenders.

The Lions traded Hockenson to the Vikings in November for a swap of draft picks at a time when they seemed to be playing out the string on the season. They were 1-6 at the time and riding a five-game losing streak, and Hockenson said he welcomed a fresh start with his one-time division rival.

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“That’s really what we’re here to do is go somewhere and win some games,” Hockenson said after the trade, via “That’s kind of the first time I’ve been able to say that.”

One of the NFL’s worst teams for most of Hockenson’s 3½ seasons in Detroit, the Lions have turned their fortunes around since his departure.

They’ve won four of five games since the start of November to climb back into the playoff race and are coming off their most complete game of the season, a 40-14 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Vikings (10-2) have matched the Lions with a 4-1 record since the trade, and their new tight end’s contributions are a big reason why.

Hockenson is the Vikings’ second-leading receiver behind Justin Jefferson since the trade. He has more catches in five games with Minnesota (30) than he did in seven games with the Lions (26), and Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said Hockenson has emerged as one of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ favorite red zone targets.

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“He’s done a good job over there, and there again they’ve used him very similar to the way we’ve used him, probably a little bit more on intermediate routes than even us because of course they’ve got Jefferson over there, which helps them in multiple areas,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “But he’s done a good job and he’s a guy that 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. He’s been a steady player for them.”

The Lions have used a tight end-by-committee approach to replace Hockenson, giving Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra and James Mitchell more snaps at tight end and leaning on other position groups to supply his production on offense. They’ve run the ball more frequently the past five weeks, and Wright, Zylstra and Mitchell each have one touchdown catch since Hockenson’s departure.

Wright said he is looking forward to seeing his good friend this week, and that seems to be the case with most of the Lions locker room.

“I always got along with T.J. so I’m sure it’ll be fun seeing him out there,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “I’ll talk a little (expletive), and I’m sure he’ll talk a little (expletive) so it’ll be good.”

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Hockenson told Minnesota reporters the emotion of the game probably won’t “hit me (till) I get there” and is “one of those things where I still got to play a game on Sunday afternoon, so I’m going to try my best not to think about it until after the game.”

Safety C.J. Moore said Hockenson is probably more motivated to show up the team that traded him than he’ll let on.

“I’m sure he definitely has this game circled,” Moore said. “Wants some revenge or whatever, but should be a fun game.”

And defensive lineman Alim McNeill said it’s up to the Lions to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“T.J.’s definitely my boy, but we got to play him this week so he’s just going to have to feel us,” McNeill said. “He was one of the brothers, he was one of the guys for sure. But he got to feel us this week. He’s got to.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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