DETROIT — With Calvin Johnson out of the lineup, the Detroit Lions offense has struggled.
Johnson, one of the top wide receivers in the NFL, hasn’t done much since suffering a high ankle sprain in a Week 3 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Johnson missed his second straight game Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Add in that rookie tight end Eric Ebron didn’t dress, that meant Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was without two of his top five receivers thus far this season. Also, No. 2 tight end Joseph Fauria was not in the lineup.
The Lions players knew they were going to need a total team effort on offense to beat the Saints.
“There’s no one person that can replace Calvin or Eric,” Lions wide receiver Corey Fuller said. “We just had to step up as a whole team, and that’s what we did.”
The younger skill players on the Lions have come up big in recent weeks.
“Anytime the greatest player in the world is not playing, it’s a struggle. But we believe in all the guys we have,” Lions guard Rob Sims said. “They’ve been with us in OTAs and through camp, and I think the system of how we do things and how we play, I think it’s showing up with the young guys, they’re coming along.”
The Lions managed just three first-half points, while punting four times. Mix in a Stafford interception by Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, and it was a rough opening two quarters for the Lions offense. Detroit had just 101 yards of total offense, and Stafford threw for just 93 yards.
“It was hard finding a good rhythm,” Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew said. “These defenses are putting together great game plans as well, it’s tough to kind of get through that stuff sometimes.”
Detroit got its offense clicking in the second half with three touchdown drives, one interception and one punt. Stafford finished the day 27-for-40 for 299 yards – 206 of those coming in the second half.
“The coaches did a great job of us all get reps,” Lions wide receiver Golden Tate said. “We strongly believe in next man up, so guys just have to step up. Everyone made this team for a reason, so when our number’s called, we have to show up and make the plays we’re supposed to make. We don’t have to do anything spectacular like Calvin.”
However, Tate was nothing short of spectacular. He pulled in a career high 10 catches for 154 yards.
It was Tate’s momentum-swinging 73-yard touchdown that gave the Lions’ offense life with 3:38 remaining in the fourth quarter. He took a short pass from Stafford and did the rest, getting outside and streaking down the right sideline. Tate beat two Saints defenders who had angles on him. The touchdown pulled the Lions to within 23-17.
“He’s been great. He’s obviously stepped up,” Stafford said. “That play he made on that long touchdown is as good of a play as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Another skill player who came into his own for the Lions offense was Fuller. The first-year player, who had just six catches on the season entering the game, was targeted five times on the day and corralled three receptions for 44 yards. It was his last catch that he’ll certainly remember for quite some time. On third-and-goal from the 5, Fuller ran along the middle of the back of the end zone, caught a pass from Stafford, and made sure he tapped both his cleats inbounds on the Ford Field turf. The go-ahead score came with just 1:38 left.
The second-half play of Stafford and his fellow teammates was what they needed after a rough opening half.
“Obviously, we could execute better,” Stafford said. “If we don’t turn the ball over twice, it probably helps us. That second one really hurt, but we fought. (Coach Jim) Caldwell always talks about finding a way to win.”
The Lions certainly found a way to win late, and the Saints couldn’t stop it.