Lions’ special teams key in close victories

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions kicker Matt Prater celebrates his field goal to put Detroit up by seven over the Jaguars late in the fourth quarter.

Allen Park – The Detroit Lions are the only team in NFL history to have their first 10 games decided by seven or fewer points, but close games are commonplace around the league this year.

Through 11 weeks, 76.4 percent of games have been within one score in the fourth quarter and 59.6 have finished within that margin. What shouldn’t be lost in the drama of all these tight contests is the importance of special teams.

The Lions special teams have been, well, special this season.

Punter Sam Martin is having a career year. His 45.8-yard net average is the best in the NFL and would be a single-season record if he can maintain the mark. Andre Roberts is one of just two return men with two touchdowns this season. And kicker Matt Prater has been steady, knocking home 18 of his 21 field-goal attempts.

Heading into Thursday’s game with the Minnesota Vikings, special teams could be the difference. That was certainly the case the last time the two teams met, when the Lions escaped with a 22-16 victory in overtime.

Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed an extra point and had a field goal blocked, leading to a 53-yard Prater field goal early in the fourth quarter. That was a critical six-point swing set Prater up for a 58-yarder in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime.

Outside of Walsh, who has since been replaced by Kai Forbath, the Vikings special teams are also a strength. Marcus Sherals, like Roberts, has two punt returns for a touchdown, and the always-dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson leads the league with a 32.0-yard average on kickoff returns, bolstered by a 104-yard touchdown last Sunday.

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Bottling up that duo is always a challenge, and could be even more difficult with Don Carey, one of Detroit’s top special teams tacklers, nursing a hamstring injury and unlikely to play Thursday.

“There have been a number of games where we’ve had to cover some pretty difficult returners, this game included,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I do think across the league this is one of the better special teams units that we’re facing this week and I think our guys are respected enough. I’m more concerned about how they perform more so than anything else.”

Lions waive Fuller

The Lions have waived wide receiver Corey Fuller.

A sixth-round pick in 2013, Fuller spent most of the season on the physically unable to perform list following offseason foot surgery. He was activated during the bye, but was a healthy scratch for the team’s win over the Jaguars last weekend.

A key contributor on special teams the past two seasons, he appeared in 28 games, catching 18 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown.

The team did not announce a corresponding roster move on Tuesday.