Allen Park — Bill Bentley was taken aback the other day at the premise that he improved over the course of the 2013 season.
“We were losing, so I really didn’t know,” the Lions cornerback said. “I don’t want to talk about last year. I want to talk about this year. We’ve got new coaches, a great scheme and I just want to get out there and make plays wherever I’m fitted at.”
Entering his third NFL season, Bentley will again be the Lions’ nickel cornerback, so covering slot receivers will again be his primary duty.
Last season, Bentley struggled in the first quarter of the season, allowing 21 receptions for 223 yards in Week 2 through 4, according to Pro Football Focus. And those numbers don’t include his 31-yard pass interference in Week 2 that set up Arizona’s game-winning touchdown with 1:59 left in regulation.
Over his last nine games, though, Bentley — who missed Weeks 10, 11 and 17 due to injuries — gave up just 18 catches for 140 yards, according to the analytics site.
As rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Bentley played just four games because a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserved. The Lions leaned on him much more in his second season and will again in 2014. Barring a surprising change, Bentley will be the No. 3 cornerback behind Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis, and his 5-foot-10, 176-pound frame and 4.43 speed makes him a good fit for nickel duties.
“He was a young guy from not too big of a school,” said Mathis, who went to Bethune-Cookman. “It’s just adopting philosophies and knowing formations and knowing what you’re going to get from them.
“He’s not afraid to ask questions, and he trusts the guys that are in his room. And we help him grow, so that’s a great combination of success.”
Bentley also hopes extra practice time pays off. On Monday, he caught passes from rookie quarterback James Franklin for a while after practice ended, and he stayed late again Tuesday working with some other defensive backs.
Bentley had five passes defenses last year but no interceptions, and he’s dropped several picks in training camp so far. So the extra work with his hands makes sense.
“I just feel like that’s a weak part of my game right now,” he said. “I want to focus more on catching the ball. That’s going to be big for us. Less drops and more catches equals more turnovers.
“I just want to work on the little things and try to get better at the little things to become more of a helpful player to the team.”
Bentley made a nice catch on Monday afternoon. Matthew Stafford threw a wobbly pass that bounced off tight end Brandon Pettigrew’s hands, and Bentley caught it and returned it for a touchdown during a late-game situational drill.
“My coaches put me in position to make a play, so kudos to them,” he said, adding it was a “bonus” to take it to the house.
In addition to improving his hands, Bentley said he’ll spend the few weeks before the season trying to learn the playbook and doing whatever he can to ensure he stays healthy.
One other thing Bentley has improved since entering the NFL is his self-awareness. He’s willing to handle whatever role the coaches give him, whether on defense or special teams, and he’s just glad to have a job.
And before the season begins, Bentley hopes to use the final three preseason games to master his craft.
“I’ve got a lot of things I’ve got to work on, a lot of weaknesses, a lot of positives, too,” he said. “It’s all about coming out and just getting better. It’s the preseason. Just working on the small things, trying to get rid of the bad habits and work on positive habits.”