Big plays, production dwindle for Lions' Jones

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — One month into the season, Marvin Jones looked like one of the biggest steals of free agency. But too often recently, the Detroit Lions wide receiver has been a ghost.

Through four games, Jones was leading the NFL with 482 yards, racking up most of the yardage with big plays. But after posting a career-high 205 yards in Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers, he hasn’t topped the century mark since, averaging fewer than 40 the past 10 games. He's arguably coming off his worst outings, catching one of the seven passes thrown his way for 16 yards.

There’s a natural ebb and flow to the Lions’ offense, given the quantity and quality of the offensive weapons on the roster. The team is the fifth in league history to have five players record 50 or more receptions in a season. Still, Jones’ valley of production has lasted beyond what can be considered normal.

“I don’t think that there’s any specific recipe,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said when asked what it would take to get Jones more involved. “We took a couple shots at him down the field the other day, and I think just stay with your progression, that’s what I’ll tell (quarterback Matthew Stafford). If he’s open deep, you get it to him if you’ve got an opportunity. If not, work your way down your progression. You don’t try to force anything that’s for sure.”

When he was posting big numbers to start the year, the Lions were aggressively taking downfield shots to Jones, targeting him on 11 deep passes the first three games. Through four contests, he led the NFL with nine receptions for 20 or more yards.

“I mean you have to try and create chunk plays in this league, it’s the easiest way to score points,” Stafford said. “You know, you look at drives that have 20-yard plays in them or more, the likelihood of scoring points in those drives are obviously a lot higher.”

Detroit hasn’t abandoned those deep attempts to Jones, but they’re definitely fewer and further between — 15 in the past 12 games. He’s caught four and drew pass interference penalties on two others.

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There are a lot of factors that could be causing Jones’ decline. First and foremost, defenses respect him  more now. He doesn’t have a traditional, dominant No. 1 receiver — like A.J. Green in Cincinnati — to command the attention of opposing defenses. That means tougher assignments for Jones.

And some of the changes are schematic. He’s seeing more press-man coverage on the outside, which the lanky 6-foot-2 receiver has struggled to consistently beat.

“I think there’s been situations where he’s done a little bit of both,” Caldwell said. “I think he’s gotten off and made plays, there’s been some times where he hasn’t. That goes for every guy that we have.

“He’s capable and I think he’s shown that he’s capable. He can also catch it in the crowd when he has to, so I think he has the ability to do so.”

Mounting injuries also can’t be ignored. Jones has missed practice time with four different lower body injuries this season – hamstring, foot, thigh and quad. The thigh injury sidelined him a game, and combined, it’s fair to assume they’ve hindered his ability to get open as easily as he did during the season.

The Lions don’t typically talk about injuries or their impact, but when Jones was sought for comment, he asked to delay the interview until after treatment and didn’t return before the end of the 45-minute window of availability.

Even though Jones has struggled to come anywhere close to maintaining the breakneck pace he set out the gate, it’s difficult to argue his signing wasn’t the right move for the Lions in the aftermath of Calvin Johnson’s retirement.

The team could certainly do much worse than 900 yards and four touchdowns for $8 million per season. And we’ve seen the potential, the Lions just have to find a way to get more out of the receiver more consistently.

This week would be a good start. Jones had his way with the Packers earlier this season and the Lions could desperately use a similar performance this Sunday as the team seeks to win the NFC North.

Lions vs. Packers

When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Ford Field

TV / radio: NBC / WJR 760

Records: Both teams 9-6

Line: Packers by 3

At stake: Winner is NFC North champion. Loser will make playoffs if Washington loses to the New York Giants.