Middle LB rotation gives Lions’ foes double whammy

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Stephen Tulloch played every snap in the Lions’ first two games. After Tulloch suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, Tahir Whitehead replaced him at middle linebacker and played all but one snap the next two games.

Since Week 6, though, the middle linebacker, or Mike position, in the Lions defense hasn’t been held by an ironman as it is with most teams. Besides a Week 8 game that followed his emergency root canal, Josh Bynes has played between 15 and 22 snaps, with most of them at middle linebacker.

Lions players and coaches didn’t explain the rhyme or reason as to when Whitehead or Bynes plays in a game. Both players fit in all the substitution packages. Both players can cover and stop the run, and both can relay the defensive calls to their teammates.

So even though most middle linebackers never come off the field, the Lions’ No. 2 ranked defense has had success rotating Whitehead and Bynes at the position.

“They’re both smart. They’re also very, very flexible about how to align,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.

The Lions signed Bynes off Baltimore’s practice squad after Tulloch suffered his injury in Week 3, and after playing with the Ravens the past three years, he was familiar with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s scheme.

Bynes has played some weak- and strong-side linebacker in the NFL, but most of his experience is at the Mike. In high school, he was the only defensive player with a wristband, and he was a three-year starter in the middle at Auburn before joining the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2011.

Most of Whitehead’s experience, meanwhile, was at strong-side linebacker, the position he played at Temple. He won that job for the Lions out of training camp, but moved to the middle when Tulloch suffered his injury. Whitehead didn’t play a defensive snap his first two NFL seasons, but Bynes started nine games for the Ravens in three years, giving the Lions some extra experience.

“It’s almost like a backup point guard going in and doing his thing, and you don’t lose a step,” Austin said of the rotation. “I think both of those guys have performed really well for us. Josh is a physical guy, he’s got good ball skills, he’s got good instincts and so that helps. And he’s played middle linebacker a lot longer than Tahir has, and so they kind of help each other out and they feed off each other.

“So, when Josh comes out or when Tahir comes out, I’m sure he talks to Tahir, ‘Hey, this is what I kind of see,’ and when he goes in there, they talk amongst each other. So, I think it’s good and Josh helps us. He keeps the snaps off of Tahir.”

The rotation helps keep both players fresh. Even though there could be some communication issues with two different guys calling defensive plays, cornerback Rashean Mathis said the only difference is the sound of Bynes’ and Whitehead’s voices.

To ensure there’s no communication gap, Bynes and Whitehead talk between series, and there hasn’t been a noticeable drop-off when one plays as opposed to the other.

When the Lions signed Bynes, most people expected him to be a special teams player who provided depth at linebacker. But he had higher expectations of himself and has taken advantage of his opportunities.

“I just expected to play,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever done since I’ve been in the league.”

And with Whitehead suffering a shoulder injury in practice this week leaving him questionable for Sunday's game against the Vikings, there's a chance Bynes could play even more than usual.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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