With Kenny Golladay’s monster debut, it’s easy to forget the quiet, but significant impact TJ Jones had in the passing game.
Jones caught just two passes, both on the same, late-game dive, but they sparked the Lions’ offense down the stretch, keeping alive the scoring drive that gave the Lions their first lead of the game.
On 3rd-and-10, the Cardinals brought and overload blitz and forced quarterback Matthew Stafford to move to his right and make a difficult throw to Jones, moving left. The pass had plenty of zip, but was well behind Jones, who had to fully extend reaching back to secure the 16-yard reception and the first down.
“That was not an easy catch that he made,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Matthew can put a little hot sauce on that ball, will sometimes make it a little difficult to catch it and particularly if it’s not in the standard position, and TJ did a nice job turning and making that catch.”
Three plays later, Stafford found Jones again, for a second 16-yard gain. This one came near the right sideline and Jones had to tap his toes down to stay in bounds.
“Any time you get a third-down conversion, another big play in a drive, it’s significant, and those two were significant,” Caldwell said.
Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has long shown a creative flair in the running game. He devised a game plan last year that called for wide receiver Golden Tate to take a handful of snaps at tailback. In another game, Cooter got the defense off balance by reversing his running back and fullback in the I-formation.
In the opener, Cooter utilized a defensive rookie — undrafted defensive end Alex Barrett — as a fullback during a critical third-and-1 situation.
Barrett is long removed from his days playing offensive line in school, but he possesses ideal size, at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, and the requisite quickness to be effective in the role on a limited basis.
And while no one player makes a play successful, one can certainly result in a play’s failure. Following Barrett, running back Dwayne Washington burst through a hole and gained seven yards on the play.
The biggest question facing the Lions’ roster coming into this game is where the pass rush would come from, and while Arizona’s subpar offensive line maybe isn’t the best barometer, the performances of young defensive linemen Anthony Zettel and Jeremiah Ledbetter provide reason for optimism.
Zettel had a sack, another tackle for loss, and even dropped into zone coverage and netted a pass breakup. There were also a number of quarterback pressures that won’t show up in the box score.
As for Ledbetter, the sixth-round pick, he showed some impressive burst into the backfield on a number of snaps, including tripping up quarterback Carson Palmer on a red-zone throw, that resulted in an incompletion. Ledbetter could have finished better on a few plays, but overall, it was a really promising debut.
There was some consternation on social media when it was announced cornerback Teez Tabor, the team’s second-round draft pick. would be a healthy scratch. But this move was largely expected once the Lions announced fellow rookie Jamal Agnew would field punts.
Tabor is firmly behind starters Nevin Lawson and Darius Slay on the depth chart, and D.J. Hayden, a former first-round pick with plenty of experience, worked his way into playing time with a strong preseason. Plus, he can back up all three cornerback spots, something Tabor can’t do.
This isn’t an indication Tabor is behind in his development or will be a bust. His importance always was going to be more in 2018 and beyond, when Lawson and Hayden become free agents. The rookie wasn’t going to contribute today, and that’s not unusual at his position. Life is typically rough for rookie corners forced to play this early. We all remember Darius Slay’s first year.