Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell had a play sheet in his left hand and a walkie-talkie in his right hand during a recent practice.
In many ways, Campbell has his hands full. And he knows it.
The first-year coach, searching for ways to spark his winless team last month, took over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn and gave himself the important chore for the first time.
Campbell said there are three calls he’d like to have back, including a run on third-and-32 from midfield in the latest loss to Chicago, and acknowledged he’s learning on the fly.
“I’m not going to lie, there are things about it between learning to be a head coach and a play caller,” the brutally honest coach said. “It’s stuff that I’m working through right now that I can get better at.”
Quarterback Jared Goff has witnessed Campbell improving each week with his new gig.
“Anytime you take something over like that in the middle of the season and haven’t done it before, it’s going to take a week or two, and I think he’s really settled in this past week,” Goff said. “I know he’d be the first one to say he wants things back, but I think he’s doing a great job and feel confident in him.”
Detroit (0-10-1) is down to six more chances to win a game in Campbell’s debut season, and its next opportunity against the Minnesota Vikings (5-6) might be one of its best to pull off an upset. The Lions have only one game left – at Seattle on Jan. 2 – against a team that isn’t currently in the playoff picture.
At Ford Field on Sunday, Detroit and Minnesota will be desperately seeking a win for different reasons. The Lions haven’t won in nearly a calendar year and the Vikings need a win to maintain realistic playoff hopes.
“The good thing is, we are a playoff team,” Minnesota receiver Adam Thielen said. “We know what we’re capable of, but we have six games to now go and prove it and to ultimately get in.”
Both teams have starting running backs with injured shoulders.
Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook was hurt late in the third quarter at San Francisco last Sunday, giving Alexander Mattison and rookie Kene Nwangwu increased roles in the backfield. When Cook missed the previous matchup against Detroit with a sprained ankle, Mattison had 95 yards rushing, 50 yards receiving and a touchdown.
D’Andre Swift aggravated his shoulder injury in a 16-14 loss to Chicago on Thanksgiving. Jamaal Williams, a former Green Bay Packer in his first season in Detroit, had a season-high 15 carries for 65 yards and five receptions against the Bears.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of Jamaal Williams,” Campbell said.
Nwangwu has two touchdowns on just eight kickoff returns. The fourth-round draft pick out of Iowa State scored on a 99-yard runback last week at San Francisco to become the first NFL player with multiple kickoff return touchdowns in a season since Cordarrelle Patterson had two for the Vikings in 2016.
Nwangwu marveled this week at the size of the hole blockers created for him to burst through.
“This one was pickup big, like you could drive a car through it,” said Nwangwu, who injured his knee in the first preseason game and didn’t make his debut for the Vikings until Oct. 31.
Nwangwu has carried the ball two times for 16 yards, but he has a chance to be more involved with the offense due to Cook’s injury.
“I don’t think he really wants to be satisfied being a kick returner,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Minnesota’s eight-point loss to the 49ers was its largest margin of defeat this season. The Vikings also have setbacks by seven and four points, by three points in a pair of overtime games, and 34-33 at Arizona.
“One key mistake really kept us from winning those,” cornerback Bashaud Breeland said. “If those go in our favor, we could be undefeated right now.”
Detroit is coming off a two-point loss to Chicago on Thanksgiving, a three-point setback at Cleveland and a 16-16 tie at Pittsburgh.
RESTED AND READY
The Lions, and Goff in particular, hope having nine days off will help heal bumps and bruises to improve their chances of winning.
“I don’t want to make any excuses, but just having that minor oblique deal that was bothering me, just getting right on that,” said Goff, who played Chicago after missing the previous game with an injury.
Minnesota beat Detroit 19-17 at home in Week 5 on Greg Joseph’s 54-yard field goal as time expired for its eighth straight win in the series.
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