Lessons learned in winning could propel Detroit Lions to playoffs: ‘Little things add up’

Detroit Free Press

Josh Woods had his toes on the 50-yard line and his eyes trained on Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Riley Patterson.

As Patterson approached a kickoff late in the first half of the Detroit Lions’ 40-14 pounding of the Jaguars last Sunday, Woods noticed Patterson, his former teammate with the Lions, taking a slightly more rounded approach than usual to the ball.

He threw his right arm out, finger pointed in that direction, in a last-second effort to let the rest of the Lions return unit know Patterson was kicking the ball that way — counter to where the Lions expected based on the Jaguars’ pre-kick alignment.

Return man Justin Jackson, who thought he noticed something different about Patterson’s approach, too, raced to the right corner of the end zone, fielded the ball in the air at the 1-yard line and returned it down the sideline for a 32-yard gain as most of the blockers in front of him set up for a right return.

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The sequence happened too quick for Woods to communicate verbally what he saw, but after Jackson’s big return led to a field goal that staked the Lions to a 17-point halftime lead, several of Woods’ teammates pointed to his microscopic attention to detail — and the rest of the unit’s alertness and ability to adjust on the fly — as evidence of the most important thing to sprout from the Lions’ recent hot streak.

One of the youngest teams in the NFL, the Lions are learning what it takes to win meaningful football games and applying that in real time to their playoff pursuit.

The Lions (5-7) have won four of their past five games after a 1-6 start and head into today’s NFC North showdown with the Minnesota Vikings a legitimate wild card contender.

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The Vikings (10-2) can clinch the division with a win today.

“It’s just the level of focus, the level of pressure you have to apply, the intensity you have to play with,” defensive tackle Alim McNeill said. “The attention to detail in your plays. No busts. There can’t be my-bads and stuff like that. Obviously, it happens. It’s life, you’re human. But in this league, mistakes can cost you. One mistake can cost you. So I think we just learned that the little things add up. It’s not so much the bigger things that happen late in the game. It’s the small, little things that add up.”

The Lions did not do enough of the little things right early in the season.

Their communication was spotty in the secondary. They got too loose with their rush lanes. Their precision was lacking on offense. They were sloppy with their technique.

It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened enough that it cost the Lions games. By three points to the Philadelphia Eagles in the opener. By four to the Vikings in Week 3. By a field goal one week later against the Seattle Seahawks.

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The Lions’ inattention to detail cost secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant his job in late October and prompted a player’s only defensive meeting that some in the locker room insist was the turning point for the season.

Since that meeting days before their Week 9 win over the Green Bay Packers, the Lions have one loss to the Buffalo Bills and are tied for the third-best record (4-1) in the NFL.

“I feel like the flip switched when we all learned that each one of us, everybody, we all affect each other’s livelihood,” safety Kerby Joseph said. “Once we understood that, it’s like, I don’t want to see my brother go down, I want to see all my brothers do great. And also like, we had to understand, like, what kind of legacy do you want to leave here? What kind of legacy do you want to leave? You don’t want to feel like, ‘Oh, he was just an average guy.’ No, you want to leave like a top dog legacy type stuff. When everybody understood that I feel like we just started to come together as one. The trust got better, the communication got better.”

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The Lions are a different team now than they were when they fell to the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in a finish they’d rather forget.

Leading by three points with just over a minute to play, Lions coach Dan Campbell opted to try a 54-yard field goal on fourth-and-4. Austin Seibert missed the kick wide right, and the Vikings scored the game-winning touchdown three plays later.

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The Lions have juggled personnel since that loss. Seibert is gone, replaced by Michael Badgley, they traded tight end T.J. Hockenson to the Vikings, and Joseph, Josh Paschal, John Cominsky and Jerry Jacobs are key contributors who did not play a defensive snap in that game.

Campbell said they also have matured as a team.

“I think obviously the more you win and the ways that you learn to win, you get better at it cause there’s a number of ways you can do it,” he said. “And that’s really what’s transpired. We’ve done it, the game plans have all been different, the opponents are different and win with a lead, come from behind, keep the lead in a tight game. I think you learn to stay composed. Certainly, when things don’t go your way you don’t go in the tank. It’s just about cleaning up the errors that maybe you cost you a play or two, that gave them a little bit of momentum. So I just think those things, that’s normally what happens. And there again, your confidence grows and we have a lot of confidence right now.”

With five games left, the Lions are counting on that confidence to lead them to more wins.

They likely need to win their final five games to make the postseason, but feel good about their chances given the lessons they’ve learned in recent weeks.

“We’ve always had the talent, we’ve always had the coaching, we’ve always had the people and I think now it’s starting to come together a little bit,” quarterback Jared Goff. “Sure, we still have a lot of work to do to get ourselves in a spot to make the playoffs, but we’re on our way.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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