DETROIT – There's something about being that man everybody is watching; all those silent expectations packed into a glare that follows you down the hall. And everywhere Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young walked this past week, he felt the stares of his teammates – the men who said nothing and yet said everything, too.
You going to come through for us?
The Lions' second-best receiver, Nate Burleson, was carried off the field last Monday night. The doctors said his leg was broken, surgery was scheduled and his season was over. And so the Lions turned to Young, because everybody in the league knows the only way Detroit's football team will be able to win is if there is a viable second option to its star Calvin Johnson. And everyone knows that second option needs to be Young, given the way he runs routes and can grab passes.
He has shown glimpses of how magnificent he can be since he was drafted in the second round last year, but there was also disappointment. That next option to Johnson and Burleson never quite developed. He has had some knee pain that has kept him from being as fast as he has wanted and hurt his timing with Matthew Stafford in practice. He said he also had some moments where he has been discouraged by his performance. Subsequently, the big offense never came.
But then Burleson went down and those glances started following Young.
"I saw it in a lot of guys' eyes," he said late Sunday afternoon following his two touchdown catches in Detroit's 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. "They were looking at me."
This would be the game the Lions have been looking for if they are ever going to reach the heights of a division recently owned by the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. In the rise from the depths of a winless 2008 to a future of playoff berths, the plea was always for a consistent alternative to Johnson. It has been an underwhelming pursuit for so long and a big reason why the development of Stafford has taken so long.
Young said he thought about all this in the days before Sunday's game. He thought about it through practices, through meetings, through the pregame warm-up against the Seahawks – who have an Armada of tall, rough cornerbacks who like to beat up on opposing receivers. One of those, Richard Sherman – a good friend of Young's from childhood in Los Angeles – made a public declaration of going after Johnson. The Lions' top receiver, Sherman said, was going to get nothing. All this did was put more pressure on Young.
Young has been a perplexing player, once suspended for nine games at Boise State for reasons never disclosed. He missed time from Lions' offseason activities after a scuffle with safety Louis Delmas last spring. However, there is also an endearing side to him. He stood, still dressed in his uniform, in an interview room beneath the Ford Field stands and talked about the people he wanted to help. He talked about wanting to win for his teammates. He talked about wanting to win for his coaches. He talked about wanting to win for Burleson.
He said he even noticed the despair in the baseball fans who were so excited for the World Series and looked more heartbroken with each Detroit Tigers loss.
"People in this city are just kind of tired of losing," he said.
Yes, he said, he wanted to come through on Sunday for Detroit as well.
"I just tried to take it upon myself to be a part of this change," he said.
And on Sunday he was the change. There came that pass from Stafford rising high toward the Ford Field ceiling and Young came running under it, letting it slip into his hands as he ran into the end zone for a second-quarter touchdown. There too were the eight other passes he caught when Johnson was taken away and he was the best option left.
Then there was the one that mattered most. The one that came with 20 seconds left and Detroit down by three points and the ball inside the one-yard line. This is where the Lions needed him most: on third down, no timeouts left, not wanting to kick a field goal and gamble on overtime. It turns out they went to him on that play, a slant inside. Take a few steps and look as the ball rifles in. He clutched the winning pass against his stomach and fell to the ground.
Nine times Stafford threw to Young on Sunday. Nine times Young caught the ball. He had 100 yards. And he had won the game.
"We knew he had it in him, we were just waiting for him to come out with it," Johnson said. "He had a chance [Sunday] to get it. He made his plays. That's what we're going to need from him the rest of the year with Nate gone."
On Sunday, the Lions saw how good they can be. They saw what Stafford looks like when he throws for more than 300 yards. They saw what happens when there is someone other than Calvin Johnson there to catch the ball.
And the Lions, who have lost so many games they could have won, saved a season that was about to die: 2-5 is instead 3-4.
"I don't even want to think about 2-5," center Dominic Raiola said.
They don't have to thanks to Titus Young.
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