Lions coach Caldwell on covering Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski.
Allen Park — Patriots running back Jonas Gray is on the cover Sports Illustrated this week, with the tag line, "Jonas Gray … Because of Course".
It's a hat-tip to New England coach Bill Belichick's ability to find hidden gems and plug them into the lineup and have them excel. Gray powered the Patriots' best running performance of the season, with 201 yards and a franchise-record four touchdowns last week against the Colts.
Whether it's Gray, the newly signed LeGarrette Blount or Shane Vereen remains to be seen. Gray was sent home from practice Friday reportedly for arriving late to practice. He was set to apologize to Belichick later Friday but his status for Sunday's game was unclear.
The Patriots rank 13th in the NFL in rushing (115.7 yards), but the Lions defense will need to play particular attention to stopping the running game, as it opens up other things for quarterback Tom Brady to be able to have more options in their potent offense, which has averaged more than 40 points during the six-game win streak.
"(We'll) try to shut down the running game so they don't have the play-action because with the play-action game, they create big seams down there to throw to (Rob) Gronkowski and (Julian) Edelman," Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "We've got to do a really good job overall defensively to slow this offense down."
The Lions have the top-ranked run defense, giving up just 68.8 yards per game. They haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season and the Jets (132 yards) are the only team that has crossed the century mark.
"We pride ourselves on playing good defense, so that's our goal, to play good defense — it doesn't matter who we play against," safety Glover Quin said. "They put up points and we don't give up points, so our goal is to go in there and not give up points, however we have to do it."
Quin said the Lions defense won't have to do anything unusual — like moving him or James Ihedigbo up in the box to try to stop the run game — leaving most of that responsibility to the defensive line, which has proved stingy against the run as well.
The Patriots added Blount, who was cut by the Steelers this week after leaving the field before the end of the game, to the roster. Blount had 772 yards and seven touchdowns last season with the Patriots and could be ready to play along with Gray on Sunday.
"There's certainly a possibility because he can get up to speed quickly with what they're doing. The recall in those regards, particularly for veteran players is minimal," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "We would assume he may be up and running and ready to roll. But Jonas Gray is doing a pretty good job too so we'd better be concerned about him as well."
The key to the Patriots ascension as the best team in the AFC has been the play of their offensive line, which has protected Brady — allowing only 16 sacks — and opening holes for their stable of running backs.
"They've stepped up and done a tremendous job all across the board. They're playing probably as well as any offensive line in the league is playing right now," Caldwell said. "They're averaging 40-something points in the last six games, so you know they're doing their job. 199 yards rushing is a formidable feat."
With Brady at the controls of the offense and Gronkowski a looming target, the Patriots present a litany of matchup problems, but controlling the run game is the key to short-circuiting Brady's option.
For defensive tackle C.J. Mosley, trying to worry about shutting down the Patriots offense and shutting down Brady is and unreasonable expectation, but slowing them down is more of a goal.
"It's nothing we can worry about. As far as their execution, that's flawless — one of the best teams. They have Brady, a mastermind," Mosley said. "It is what it is, somebody we have to prepare for. Their execution (is excellent), bar none."
Quin said there's a lot of attention on Brady, but if the Lions stay disciplined and stick to the game plan, they'll have a shot.
"Tom Brady is that guy, so everybody has to play their responsibility," Quin said. "If we execute our scheme, we won't have to inch up (against the run) at all."