Four Downs: Lions see gains from their offseason pain

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Miami Gardens, Fla. — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 32-21 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis had seven tackles, including a sack, on Sunday against the Dolphins.

First down

In the locker room, after a game earlier this season, Lions left tackle Taylor Decker talked about his belief that the team’s hard work throughout the offseason would eventually pay off. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the sentiment from a player, but the conviction in Decker’s voice stuck with me.

The increased intensity of Detroit’s offseason conditioning has been well-documented. The team was in pads far more frequently than past years and there was a plenty of extra running — between periods, as punishment for miscues and even more at the end practice.

When conducting joint sessions with the Raiders and Giants, there were times when the Lions players looked exhausted and overworked, compared to the competition. But coach Matt Patricia believed he was building something: a roster mentally and physically capable of being a cut above during the five-month grind of an NFL season.

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Throughout Sunday’s win, in the punishing Miami heat, Patricia’s vision, and Decker’s conviction in it, was provided the opportunity to show it’s paying off.

The Dolphins have been very good at home the past three seasons and were a perfect 3-0 at their place this year before the Lions came to town. They count on opponents withering in the south Florida sun down the stretch. But the Lions didn’t wither, especially up front, where the offensive line continued to open up holes in the running game and protect quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Ignoring the victory formation to end the game, Detroit had four possessions in the second half. With those, they held the ball more than 18 minutes, averaged more than eight plays per drive, worked into the red zone three times and scored on all four. That’s impressive, no matter how you dissect it.

Second down

This was a game Jarrad Davis needed. Last year’s first-round pick had yet to put together a complete performance this season, struggling at times playing both the run and the pass. Against the Dolphins, he looked like the player the Lions drafted him to be.

Against the run, Davis played downhill and was decisive, blowing into his gaps with authority and routinely forcing the Dolphins’ backs to reroute if he wasn’t in on the tackle. In coverage, a consistent concern for the young middle linebacker, he looked even better, keeping everything in front of him, flying to the ball and making multiple open-field tackles.

It’s difficult to quantify how important Davis’ performance is to Detroit’s overall defensive success. If he continues to play at a level similar to his showing in Miami, it will shore up the unit’s soft center.

Lions tight end Michael Roberts (80) celebrates with Marvin Jones Jr. after his second touchdown Sunday against the Dolphins.

Third down

If you’ve kept tabs on Eric Ebron this season, the former Lions tight end has been a scoring machine for the Colts. Let’s not pretend he’d be putting up similar numbers in Detroit, where Stafford has significantly more weapons at his disposal, but one of the reasons the Lions have struggled in the red zone this year is because they haven’t had a reliable, pass-catching threat at tight end.

With all due respect to Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, who both offer more reliable blocking than Ebron could, especially inside the 20, neither command the attention of the defense when running routes. Even if the ball wasn’t going Ebron’s way, opponents had to respect his athleticism and he was always an option who, at the very least, improved the overall spacing for his teammates.

Michael Roberts can’t match Ebron’s athleticism, but the former touchdown machine for Toledo is proving he can be a reliable route runner and a set of hands, expanding Stafford’s arsenal close to the goal line. Plus, he’s a reliable blocker, further increasing his value.

Roberts caught two touchdowns against the Dolphins, and a third pass, a 29-yarder that was Detroit’s longest reception of the day. The ability to both stretch the field and operate effectively in close quarters is just what the doctor ordered.

Roberts played 19 snaps in his return from a knee injury suffered on the practice field. If he can stay healthy, he’s quickly trending for a bigger, more important role down the stretch of this season and beyond, seeing he’s the only tight end on the roster under contract beyond this year.

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Fourth down

There were questions about how the Lions would operate in the secondary after losing top nickel option Jamal Agnew to a knee injury, and for the first week without him, Teez Tabor was the biggest beneficiary. The 2017 second-round pick played almost every snap against the Dolphins.

The Lions were in a nickel package almost all day against the Dolphins, and it was Nevin Lawson who handled most of the work in the slot, but Tabor’s performance was naturally more under the microscope, given preseason expectations unfulfilled to this point.

It was and up-and-down performance, with some big-time open-field tackles early in the game, counterbalanced by receiver Albert Wilson getting free for a 25-yard gain on a crossing pattern and getting beat for a 24-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, albeit on a perfect on-the-move throw from Brock Osweiler to Danny Amendola.

Tabor’s playing time is on the rise, and he figures to play a pivotal role going forward. Opponents are likely to continue testing him — the logical response to avoiding Darius Slay — and that’s likely to come with some rough patches, but you can live with a performance like the one Tabor had in Miami and you hope to see continued, incremental improvements throughout the remainder of his sophomore campaign.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers