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Reporters' Notebook

Lions' hot start, Antonio Gates' feat, Odell Beckham's optimism

As we head to Week 3 of the 2017 season,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Antonio Gates' thoughts on making history.

-- Eli Manning's response to Ben McAdoo's criticism.

-- How Russell Wilson finally got the ball into the end zone.

But first, Jeffri Chadiha digs into a Detroit Lions team that could continue to surprise people ...

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions are well aware of the challenge that awaits them this Sunday. Their 2-0 start has created optimism about another run at a postseason spot. A win over the reigning NFC champion Atlanta Falcons would open even more eyes around the league to their potential. The key is maintaining the same unassuming, no-nonsense approach that has put them in this position in the first place.

For those who haven't noticed, there's a different feel to these Lions. A team that has spent most of the last few years relying on a wide-open offense suddenly has become more pragmatic. Detroit produced a 24-10 win over the New York Giants on Monday night by relying on a solid running game and a stellar defensive effort that thoroughly frustrated the Giants' vaunted passing attack. That same defense intercepted Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer three times in a 35-23 season-opening win, including one pick that strong safety Miles Killebrewreturned for a touchdown.

The Lions still have plenty of offensive firepower with quarterback Matthew Stafford under center. What this season is revealing -- and what a win over Atlanta will prove -- is that Detroit might have its most balanced team in a long time.

"This game is big, but we can't make it bigger than what it is," said Lions defensive tackle Akeem Spence. "They have a great team, but they can be beat. It comes down to the little things -- beating the guy in front of you, setting the edge, making them one-dimensional, keeping Devonta Freeman from rushing for 100 yards. That's our formula: Make them one-dimensional and then get after Matt Ryan and make him make errant throws. We did it to Eli Manning. We did it to Carson. Matt Ryan is another elite quarterback, and I feel like we can get him flustered."

If that sounds like quite a bit of confidence, it's coming from a legitimate place. The Lions are far more formidable on defense because their roster is actually healthier. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who was plagued by an ankle injury in 2016, had more sacks against the Giants (three) than he had all of last season (two, after amassing 14.5 in 2015). Cornerback Darius Slay is no longer fighting through the hamstring problems that lingered last year, while another talented cover man, Quandre Diggs, is back from the torn pectoral muscle that landed him on injured reserve last December.

Yes, the Lions are waiting to see how rookie linebacker Jarrad Davisrecovers from a concussion sustained in that win over the Giants, but they still like their chances against an Atlanta offense that averages 28.5 points a game. One of the biggest questions the Lions faced coming into this season was whether they'd have a serviceable pass rush after generating only 26 sacks in 2016 (which tied them for 30th in the NFL in that category). That issue isn't being discussed around Detroit after the first two weeks, as the Lions already have six sacks and are allowing just 289 yards per game. The feeling around the Lions is that they're playing closer to the standards they've set for themselves.

When asked why a defense that ranked 18th in the league last season has gotten off to such a good start, Diggs said, "I think it's the chemistry and experience. We obviously added a couple new pieces, but for the most part, our secondary returned, our defensive line returned and we added some people in the middle. Guys are just playing together and doing their jobs."

That defense also is aided by the fact that the Lions have been more committed to the run. In that win over the Giants, they actually ran the ball 32 times while Stafford attempted just 21 passes and amassed a mere 122 yards through the air. He's only had one other game in his nine-year career in which he threw the ball less and generated fewer yards, and that was in the first game of the 2010 season. Stafford also didn't play in the second half of that contest because of an injured right shoulder.

Lions head coach Jim Caldwell emphasized that he's not looking to diminish his passing game -- "We're not a team that's going to run the ball for 300 yards a game; it's not a wishbone," he said during his Thursday press conference -- but there's something to be said about his willingness to play to his defense when necessary. It's further evidence that the Lions can rely on different facets of this team to win games, which wasn't the case not too long ago. It's a credit to Caldwell's coaching and the front-office skills of general manager Bob Quinn. It's also a sign that people might be sleeping on a Lions team that could be more dangerous than many initially suspected.

How they play against Atlanta this week will say plenty about how good they are moving forward.

"There's no satisfaction [yet], because we're only two games in," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin of his unit's early success. "There's a lot of the season left to be played, and we have to improve. What we do now shouldn't be the high mark of what we're trying to get done. I would hope that maybe at the end of year, we can talk about it and say we're really pleased with what we've done. But right now, our goal is try to improve, so that at the end of the year we can have that conversation."


NFL: Looking to O-lines to explain scoring dip. The early struggles in offensive line play around the league have been pointed to as part of the explanation for why scoring has dropped by almost three points per game per team, from an average of 22.9 in 2015 and 2016 to 20.1 in the first two weeks this season. It's a drop the league can't be thrilled with -- total scoring for a game in the mid-40s has been considered a sweet spot in the past.

Defenses are almost always ahead of offenses very early in the season, but sloppy offensive lines from New York (the Giants) to Seattle (the Seahawks) have not escaped notice. This week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick voiced a frustration shared by many of his fellow coaches: that the reduction of practice time in pads, as mandated by the collective bargaining agreement agreed to six years ago, has particularly impacted O-line development. He compared it to trying to putt when playing golf without ever going to a putting green.

"You're playing a contact position with pads, and you're practicing it without pads the majority of the time," Belichick said. "That usually develops a lot of bad habits, and a lot of the techniques that a player would have the chance to work on and improve with pads, that opportunity just isn't there without pads. I think that the way, without being able to practice, favors the defensive players a little more, whereas the offensive unit has to work together and be able to block things at more of a game tempo with pads and penetration and combination blocks and things like that. It's just hard to simulate those and hard to get the timing of those when you're just standing up watching each other without pads on a lot.

"So, I mean, look, we're all coaching under the same rules, but I think it's harder, especially at that position, to improve when you really can't practice your skill. It's like, you go out to the driving range and hit drives and hit balls, but you can't go on the putting green. And then, to think that your putting is going to be at the same level as your driving when you can't really practice it, it's not really realistic."

International update.With initial assessments indicating that Estadio Azteca, the Mexico City stadium that will host the Raiders and Patriotson Nov. 19, was undamaged in the Sept. 19 earthquake that rattled the area, the league's international focus again turned to London, where the Ravens and Jaguarswill play Sunday in the first of four games in London this season, the first year the NFL has played that many games there.

This is the 10th anniversary of the start of regular-season games in London, and Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president for international, said this week the league has seen growth in local participation in American football. He said more than 40,000 people over the age of 14 in the United Kingdom play American football and more than 100 universities in the UK have registered teams.

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DENVER BRONCOS: The shutdown defense's triple threat. Want to know how the Broncos' defense shut down the Cowboys? Denver has what many believe -- myself included -- is the best trio of corners in the league: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. Combine that with arguably the best pass rusher in the NFL, Von Miller ... and there you go.

"If you're going to have great defense, it's based on having rushers and corners," Broncos head coach Vance Joseph told me on Monday. "When you have guys who can cover, you can do whatever you want. You can play zone and you can play man. If it's a game like yesterday and it's a heavy running team you can load the box, clog every gap and play man-free for half the game with no worries -- most teams aren't built that way. Our game plan yesterday was strictly based on our three corners being able to cover their receivers one-on-one for a large majority of the game. If you can do that, that makes it hard on offenses."

Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was asked this week if the Broncos gave a blueprint on how to shut down the Cowboys. Arians replied, "If you can borrow Denver's players."

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Frankenstein's tight end. It's appropriate that coach Bill O'Brien and the Texans are facing the Patriots this week. Because if you're wondering how a coach who has started nine different quarterbacks since his tenure with the Texans began in 2014 -- the most QBs started by one team in the NFL in that span -- still has a winning record and has made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, consider that O'Brien spent five seasons on the Patriots' staff under Bill Belichick, widely considered the master of adaptive week-to-week game planning.

Against the Bengals last Thursday, the Texans were on a short week, missing all three regular tight ends and led by a rookie QB making his first career start. And yet, O'Brien found a way to win while piecing together the tight end position using three different players, from three different positions.

With tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin and Stephen Andersonall missing for the Bengals game after suffering concussions the Sunday before against Jacksonville, the Texans signed Evan Baylis, an undrafted rookie tight end from Oregon, off the practice squad to make his NFL debut.

"I knew I'd be involved in the passing game," Baylis said after the game Thursday, while underscoring his inexperience in the Texans rushing attack, "and some run plays here and there."

A couple of lockers down stood running back Tyler Ervin, a second-year pro from San Jose State, who said his role in the game plan was to provide another threat from the slot, occupying much of the space in the passing game that tight end routes typically cover. He ended up being targeted five times, finishing with three catches for 16 yards.

And if you saw rookie tackle Juli��n Davenport swiping at his No. 70 jersey all night, he wasn't trying to flatten his figure, he was signaling to the referees that he was an eligible receiver lining up in the tight end spot. This was a difficult job in his first NFL game for two reasons, he told me. One, as a tight end, he lined up further out wide than he's accustomed to as a tackle, which meant he was seeing the snap from a different angle than he had his entire playing career. (And since he was in mostly for run plays, his initial surge as a blocker was especially important.) And two, he had to be disciplined enough to remember to swipe on every single play he was on the field. That was something, he said, the coaching staff made sure to drill into him during the limited amount of practice in the short week leading up to the game.

"Jamming it in, getting it in there," he said of his coaches' relentless instruction, "going over it, then practicing it, then afterwards, making sure it was implanted in the mind."

Mission accomplished: Davenport avoided any illegal formation penalties.

Of course, pulling the strings on the field was the birthday boy, Deshaun Watson, who turned 22 years old on the night of his first NFL win -- a proud moment for him, personally. He was happy with what he and his young teammates were able to accomplish.

"A lot of us that barely have any experience and rookies had to step up tonight and perform, and that's what we did," Watson told me in the postgame news conference held just outside a jubilant Texans locker room after the team evened its record at 1-1. This was as much a celebration as it was a sigh of relief, given all that the team and the city of Houston dealt with in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Anderson and Griffin have returned to practice this week (Fiedorowicz is on IR), while Baylis was waived to make room for cornerback Johnthan Banks. But when adversity strikes again -- and it will -- O'Brien has proven these Texans can handle it, both on and off the field.

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LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Gates reflects on record-setting catch. Tight end Antonio Gates stood next to me on stage this summer at the Pro Football Hall of Fame's enshrinement ceremony, watching his former teammate, 2017 enshrinee LaDainian Tomlinson. He was taken aback by the assemblage of great players and the history.

After Gates caught his record-setting 112th career touchdown pass in last Sunday's loss to the Dolphins -- he now has the most touchdown catches by a tight end in NFL history -- Gates and I reflected on that moment in Canton, and he told me, "I'll never forget that ... and I'll never forget this."

This being the scoring reception from Philip Rivers that put another exclamation point on what should be a Hall of Fame career for Gates.

Besides the loss, the only odd thing about that milestone day was when Gates was asked about tying the record for touchdown catches by a tight end -- Tony Gonzalez was the previous record-holder, with 111 -- as a member of the San Diego Chargers last season and then breaking it as a member of the Los Angeles Chargers this season. Gates diplomatically said he'll always be a member of the San Diego Chargers, but (through no fault of his own) he's part of a new beginning in Los Angeles.

He danced around that topic as well as he evaded defenders for years.

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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Defense still rounding into shape. The team that ended Los Angeles' 22 years without pro football was gashed for 229 rushing yards in last Sunday's 27-20 loss to visiting Washington.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, in his first year with the team, blamed the Rams' poor showing on the learning curve that comes with installing a new defense. "We haven't played with this defense together," Phillips said, while Washington "ran things this group has never seen."

The lineup was altered from Week 1's victory over the Colts because All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donaldmade his season debut after holding out of all training camp and being on the exempt list until the day before the loss to Washington. Donald only had three practices before facing Washington and hadn't engaged in full contact until he started his first game of the season.

Phillips didn't single out Donald, other than to say he was in good enough shape to play more than they expected, and that he'll resume being the consistently disruptive player he's been as the season evolves.

Well, that happened in Thursday night's thrilling, 41-39 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Yes, the defense as a whole obviously still struggled to put together stops (especially in the second half), but Donald himself was an absolute force up front. And he just happened to put the game away with a fourth-down sack of Brian Hoyer.

Prior to Thursday's game, Phillips said multiple players are still adjusting to the switch from the four-man front the Rams have used for years to the 3-4 scheme he's incorporated. He said Robert Quinn is still getting used to playing outside linebacker and setting the edge on runs after playing defensive end throughout his career, all six prior seasons of which he's spent with the Rams. Inside linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron also are learning the intricacies, Phillips added.

Things will get better, Phillips said earlier this week, and hopefully soon.

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Rhodes' star rising. Will the Vikings use cornerback Xavier Rhodes to shadow Buccaneers receiver Mike Evanson Sunday? Or will they mix things up, knowing vertical threat DeSean Jackson is on the other side?

The Vikings aren't saying. But they have to be tempted, given how Rhodes played last weekend against Pittsburgh star Antonio Brown, notwithstanding a pass interference call that helped the Steelers score an early touchdown as they raced to a 14-0 lead they didn't relinquish.

After going off for 182 yards on 11 catches in the season-opening win over Cleveland, Brown was held to five catches for 62 yards against the Vikings. His longest reception was a 26-yarder, against a blown coverage Rhodes was nowhere near.

The Vikings gave Rhodes a five-year, $70.1 million extension in July for good reason. At age 27, he continues to ascend as a premier cover man. And that usually means tangling with the likes of Evans, who's coming off 7-catch, 93-yard, one-touchdown effort in Tampa's season-opening rout of Chicago. Jackson had three catches for 39 yards in that game.

Either way, Rhodes knows a few things about the guy throwing them the ball. He and Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston were teammates during Winston's redshirt season at Florida State in 2012.

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NEW YORK GIANTS: Beckham staying positive. In a week where the winless Giants could use a lift, Odell Beckham Jr. has indicated he will play more against the Eagles than he did Monday night, when he logged 34 of 56 possible offensive snaps vs. the Lions. It was his first game action since injuring his left ankle in Week 2 of preseason.

"I feel like I can take over a game at any time, no matter [the] ankle, anything like that," Beckham said. "So, it's just a matter of getting those opportunities and making the most of them. ... [Whether we're] 0-2 [or] 16-0, I always want to be a difference maker."

The Giants' offense has scored 13 points in two games. That futility has led to early panic, but, Beckham said, "those people aren't on this team, I don't think. I don't really see any panic. There is no fear in my heart about being 0-2.

"It's just a time to dig deep, make plays when you need to make them, turn things around. You can go 0-5, win the next 11, and you never know. I think the Giants won a Super Bowl when they were 9-7. So I don't really count us out."

Manning unfazed by early stumbles, criticism. Not only has Eli Manning been sacked eight times this season, too often he barely has had time to survey the field.

Of his offensive line, he said: "I've got great confidence in these guys. They work their tails off and they're prepared."

Amid the Giants' poor start, it helps that Manning has perspective from being in the league -- and in the New York media market -- since 2004.

"I will get sacked another time this year; that's part of football," he said. "I've played in NFC Championship Games where I've got sacked six times. So, that's just part of it."

Manning sloughed off some pointed commentsin recent days from coach Ben McAdoo. Criticism, he said, "is part of being in the NFL. You can't be sensitive, and I think everyone's gotten very sensitive -- players and everybody."

Across the locker room, teammates appreciate the quarterback's approach.

"Do I believe in [No.] 10? Absolutely," Beckham said. "He's done it before, and I don't see why he wouldn't do it again."

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Protection problems abound.Eagles coach Doug Pederson gave this reply when asked about Eli Manning having been sacked eight times through two games: "Yeah, and we were sacked six times, too, this past weekend."

Indeed, heading into Sunday's Giants-Eagles game, Manning and Eagles QB Carson Wentz have both been sacked eight times on the season.

Speaking generally about shaky offensive line play, Pederson had an interesting take.

"You're seeing five-man protection on first and second down, so sacks are going to increase just a little bit," he said. "Quarterbacks are taught to get the ball out of their hand and find the quick receiver. But I think with the way the league is going with more of a passing attack, I think you're going to see a little rise in sacks as we go."

D-line on the upswing. It's likely that Pederson's defensive line is looking forward to seeing the Giants' offensive line on Sunday, in the Eagles' home opener. The addition of veterans Timmy Jernigan (trade) and Chris Long (free agency), as well as first-round rookie Derek Barnett, have only helped a group anchored by Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. (Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan singled out Graham as "one of the best pass rushers" in the league.)

In Weeks 1and 2, the Eagles sacked Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith a total of eight times. Pederson said he expects that the Eagles could have one of the league's "dominant" defensive lines, if it stays healthy.

"Our defensive line prides themselves getting off the ball, as you know, and getting pressure with four guys," Pederson said. "I would think that that would be the same type of mentality going into this game."

The key to that statement is pressure with four guys. The Giants have seen a lot of that, allowing their opponents to have seven defenders in coverage.

Bigger role coming for Blount? Before the draft, the Giants talked to free-agent running back LeGarrette Blount. After the draft, he signed with the Eagles.

Blount led the NFL in rushing touchdowns last season, when he was with the Patriots, with 18. On Sunday in Kansas City, he had just one touch -- a reception for no gain.

Blount signed with the Eagles because of the promise that he'd be more than a short-yardage back. He told me he's optimistic he'll be a bigger part of the game plan against the Giants.

"We've got one football, and you try to get everybody involved when you can and if you can," Pederson said. "[Yes], we've had conversations, and [are] just defining the role" Blount will have.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: How Seattle finally reached the end zone. The Seahawks' have scored just one offensive touchdown this season thus far, in last Sunday's game against the 49ers. But it epitomized how quarterback Russell Wilsoncan burn a defense.

With three defenders closing in on him, Wilson began scrambling to keep the play alive, which sent out an immediate alert to the rest of his offense to dig in.

"We know that the pass plays might go 10 seconds or more, so it's all about finishing, and that is a challenge in itself, 'cause we are trying to block people that are faster than us," said center Justin Britt in the locker room after the game. Britt was attempting to mirror 49ers defender Elvis Dumervil while trying to figure out which way Wilson was going. "I was just praying Russ got the ball away, because my guy was diving for his legs."

Meanwhile, wide receiver Paul Richardson, who wound up catching the 9-yard touchdown pass, also knew he had to continue trying to get open, even though 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson was plastering him: "I faked one way and ran out, and Russell kept running. He gets that ball out in that scramble offense, and we put six points up on the board."

With a quarterback like Wilson, the scramble drill is something the Seahawks practice often, said receiver Doug Baldwin. "You gotta be well-conditioned. Simply put. You gotta be well-conditioned. My offseason conditioning is pure hell, simply because of the fact that I know we are going to be scrambling a lot."

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