ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Eric Ebron ran under Matthew Stafford’s pass and gathered the ball in — a simple catch for the touchdown that put Detroit ahead to stay.
Then again, nothing has been all that simple for Ebron in his four-year NFL career.
The Lions can hope Ebron’s 29-yard touchdown catch Sunday was a turning point of sorts for the 24-year-old tight end. The 2014 first-round draft pick has been a target for Detroit fans frustrated with his inconsistency as a pass catcher, but he made an important contribution in a 38-24 win over Cleveland that enabled the Lions to keep pace in the postseason race.
“He had one bad game then the last couple games he’s been playing well,” coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. “The object is to keep that going.”
Ebron was taken with the 10th pick in the 2014 draft, two spots ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. He’s been a regular target for Stafford since then, but it would be an understatement to say Ebron has left Lions fans wanting more.
Caldwell pointed out that Ebron’s numbers have improved each season, and that’s true. His receptions increased from 25 to 47 to 61, and his yards receiving went from 248 to 537 to 711. That trend hasn’t continued into this season, however. He has only 20 catches for 234 yards in nine games.
There was speculation the Lions might trade Ebron before the deadline this season, but he remained with Detroit. Following the deadline, he had three catches in a win at Green Bay, then caught the touchdown pass from Stafford in the fourth quarter to give the Lions a 31-24 lead against the Browns. Ebron was able to separate from a defender and caught the ball around the 10-yard line before breezing into the end zone.
“He ran a nice route and I threw like a punt,” Stafford said. “That was not spinning real pretty, but it ended up in a good spot.”
Ebron didn’t stick around to talk after the game, and Detroit players weren’t available Monday. The Lions (5-4) are two games out of first place in the NFC North, entering the grueling stretch in their schedule that includes a game at Chicago on Sunday, then a Thanksgiving matchup with Minnesota the following Thursday.
Detroit rebounded from a three-game losing streak and has won two in a row, and a more reliable Ebron would certainly help down the stretch. Caldwell dismissed the idea that the Lions can be more creative with Ebron’s positioning now that tackle Taylor Decker is back from his shoulder injury, and Ebron’s overall stat line from Sunday — two catches for 39 yards — wasn’t exactly an eye opener.
But Detroit doesn’t need Ebron to be spectacular to move the ball. The Lions need him to be dependable and make the simple catches. In that sense, last weekend was a start.
NOTES: Detroit’s maligned running game finished with 104 yards on 19 carries Sunday against a Cleveland team that came in ranked fourth against the run. “I think our guys did a better job of executing, getting them a man on a man, and giving our backs a crease to run in,” Caldwell said. “So, I think the backs did a good job getting north and south or circling the defense. So, overall I think it was more execution than anything else.”
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister