Caldwell: Lions' vast, fast improvement was no accident

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Jim Caldwell shakes hands with each player before the Lions play the Eagles.

Allen Park -- Something clearly changed, there's no question about that.

You don't go from looking so bad and lifeless in a loss to the Chicago Bears, to so good and pumped up in a win against the previously undefeated Philadelphia Eagles, by pure accident.

Still, don't expect Lions coach Jim Caldwell to concede much on that front, outside of the obvious: preparation, preparation, preparation.

"It wasn't a matter of any sort of cognitive dissonance," Caldwell told reporters during his Monday briefing at the practice facility. "We didn't have some huge revelation that went against the grain of everything we believe and we're going to do things so much differently.

"It's how we prepare, it's how we practice."

Caldwell said last week's practices were some of the best he's seen this year, especially Wednesday's, which he called perhaps the best of the season.

Execution, obviously, improved, too, particularly on defense, especially late in the game. And there were some different schematic and personnel looks, too, particularly with rookie Graham Glasgow replacing former first-round draft pick Laken Tomlinson for much of the game at left guard, and slumping wide receiver Golden Tate actually getting some work in the backfield.

Even tackle Corey Robinson saw some snaps as an extra tight end; he even was put in motion a little bit, something, frankly, you don't see every day from a 6-foot-8, 342-pounder.

The end result was a 24-23 win that might've just saved the Lions' season, though when asked if it could be viewed as such, Caldwell said, simply, "No."

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Players seemed to agree.

"I don't think if we would've lost," said Lions safety Don Carey, "that it would've been a season-ender.”

Still, climbing back into postseason contention is a whole lot easier from 2-3 than the alternative, 1-4.

But was there more at play than just good practicing?

"It's not like any great revelations," Caldwell said. "Except a friend of mine ... told me that he thought it was going to be a new turn of events for us this week because it was the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

"My mom sent me scripture from Joshua 3:5 and so that was kind of two people saying, 'Hey, you're going to have a bit of a turnaround.'"

So one part practice, one part higher power?

"I don't want to get into all those kinds of things," Caldwell said. "But I think you understand and know what I believe.

"I told you the first day I came here I've always believed in providence, make no mistake about that. Nothing happens by accident, I don't believe."

Caldwell also gave the Lions fans credit, particularly for the significant noise that he said led to some key Eagles penalties, as quarterback Carson Wentz had a hard time communicating with his center at times.

Next up for the Lions are two more home games, first against Los Angeles, then Washington, both 3-2.

The Lions next four games, in fact, are against teams currently with winning records, including looming road games against the Houston Texans (3-2) and NFC North-rival Minnesota Vikings (5-0). So the Lions sure picked a fine time to get some momentum, at the start of the second quarter of the season -- wide receiver Golden Tate said the team likes to look at a season as four quarters, and it started the second quarter on a positive note.

That's, of course, if momentum is a thing. Caldwell, no surprise, isn't so sure about momentum, as he quoted former Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who said, "Luck is the residue of design."

"I believe in steady play, when you play well consistently," Caldwell said. "Oftentimes, I think you can get on a roll if you're playing really well, but I think the playing well comes before. The actual putting together successive games that when you play well, those things count more so than anything else."

Big wrinkle

Speaking of Robinson, a seventh-round pick out of South Carolina in 2015, what was that?

"You know, we've had him in there a little bit," Caldwell said of using him in the tight-end rotation. "That's kind of been his role all year long. You always work on some things in case something happens and so forth. But he's been that guy, he and (Cornelius) Lucas have been that guy.

"He did his job, his did all right."

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As for putting him in motion, Caldwell smiled.

"Yeah, we typically don't put those guys in motion if we can help it," he said. "But I thought he did pretty well. He did show an aptitude to handle a little bit of a skill position in that regard, so he did pretty well. Didn't have to worry about him jumping off-sides or anything of that nature."

Just don't expect Robinson to become Matthew Stafford's go-to guy anytime soon.

"He's been asking for a few routes here and there -- I'm just kidding," Caldwell said.

Robinson has played in all five games this season, after playing just one his rookie season.

Quick learner

With Eric Ebron battling injury, the Lions have had to get creative at tight end.

Last Tuesday, they signed Clay Harbor; on Sunday, he already was seeing game action on a whopping 23 snaps. And Caldwell was impressed how he picked up the system.

"He may be perhaps one of the brightest guys that I've been around in terms of learning an offense quickly and well," Caldwell said of Harbor, a fourth-round pick out of Missouri State in 2010 who's spent time with the Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots.

"I'm not certain what he was like as a student, but I'll bet he was a pretty good student. I bet he was a great student.

"You typically don't get the same kind of results with a guy who can play that number of snaps with you that you just signed. You usually have to limit their role quite a bit. He did a nice job."

Extra points

Caldwell, per usual, wouldn't discuss the health status of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who left Sunday's game with a shoulder injury.

... The Lions are in a string of facing off against some stud defensive tackles, including Chicago's Akiem Hicks, Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox and Los Angeles' Aaron Donald coming up.

"Every week you've got one," Caldwell said.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tonypaul1984