DETROIT – Matthew Stafford threw the ball toward the visiting sideline, and for much of the ball’s flight, it looked like it was going to be a game-changing interception. James Bradberry had a good break on the ball, perhaps the better angle to catch it than Stafford’s target on the pass.
Bradberry looked like he grabbed it -- until he didn’t. Until Kenny Golladay, cutting back at a little deeper angle, jumped at the same time as Bradberry. The corner appeared to catch it -- or at least have his hands on it.
Then Golladay ripped it away, turned and picked up a first down.
It was a play that high-level receivers make, ones with the combination of size, speed and strength Golladay possesses. On Sunday, it was one of just a handful of plays the second-year pro made that led to one obvious conclusion after an eight-catch, 113-yard, game-winning-touchdown performance.
Golladay is Detroit’s No. 1 receiver -- and might be for a long time.
For the first time in his career, Golladay was Detroit’s clear No. 1 option. For every other game he has played, he's either had Golden Tate (since traded to Philadelphia) or Marvin Jones Jr. (injured against Chicago) on the field with him. It forced defenses to make hard choices, potentially not giving him all the attention that a true No. 1 receiver usually warrants.
Now that type of attention is something Golladay needs to get used to.
“They know Golden is gone. They know Marvin is out. So who else are they going to look to?” Golladay said. “And I just have to take that challenge, take on that challenge. The whole offense has to take on that challenge.
“They are going to double me or do whatever they want to do, then other guys pick up the slack, which we all did. It was a collective effort out there [Sunday].”
Facing Carolina had the potential to be problematic for the second-year pro who has shown multiple glimpses of being a top-end receiver but also hasn’t done it with the consistency that true No. 1s show.
The other Lions receivers against Carolina were either inexperienced (Brandon Powell, Andy Jones) or have a skill set that is somewhat limited (TJ Jones, Bruce Ellington). So this was a chance to see whether Golladay could handle that attention, prestige and workload.
“I think we all just knew we were about to pick up our game. Not having Marvin there, everyone is going to have to pick up their game to the next level,” TJ Jones said. “Whether you had it in you or not, you were going to have to pick up the slack somehow, and that’s going to be with the 11 guys on the field. So I think everyone just looked to make the plays when their number is called, and Kenny just kept making them.”
Golladay tied his career high in targets with 14 (a mark he set last week against Chicago), was 1 yard off his career high in yards and had the most receptions of his career. And the receptions were all over the field.
They came on shorter routes, where Golladay can use his 6-foot-4, 213-pound frame to dominate opposing corners. They came on intermediate routes, like the ball he ripped from Bradberry. And they came on deeper routes -- including the 19-yard touchdown on a lofted ball from Stafford that he had to extend for in the end zone.
“He just gave me a nice, pretty, high ball,” Golladay said. “I like balls like that, for me to just use my size, hands, athletic ability to go up there and make a catch, and that’s what I did.”
When the Lions took Golladay in the third round in 2017, they knew they were getting a bigger receiver -- one who had a growth spurt in college that changed his professional fortunes -- with an exceptional catch radius. They knew they were getting a pretty good route runner for a bigger college receiver.
His reliable hands, though, are key with the strong-armed Stafford. He has dropped two passes in his entire career -- one as a rookie and one this season.
His drop rate of 1.3 percent this season is No. 18 in the league among receivers. Of those ahead of him, only four have more average air yards per target than Golladay: Paul Richardson, Will Fuller V, Taylor Gabriel and Tre’Quan Smith. He's also No. 18 in the league in yards per reception (15.19) and No. 10 in first downs (39).
Many of the plays he has made -- both Sunday and earlier this season -- have been the types of plays that No. 1 receivers make. You just won’t hear about it as much because Golladay is fairly quiet.
Yet every once in a while, there’s a peek into the confidence Golladay has. Whether it’s how he ripped the ball from Bradberry or how he extended for the touchdown in the fourth quarter, it’s in how he plays. And at least a little bit, for about two seconds after he scored, in how he celebrated.
Instead of an elaborate post-score plan, Golladay popped up, did a little dance and then ran back to the sideline. The whole sequence really fit with what Golladay has been for the Lions. Little post-play flash, all on-field substance.
“You guys see it rarely out there, but he makes some big plays and starts to celebrate,” Stafford said. “That’s the only time we see him show emotion, too. I’m just happy for him. Obviously he’s put a lot of work in.
“He had a lot on his shoulders coming into this game against a really good opponent and a good corner. I was happy for him.”