Tulloch’s return strengthens Lions’ linebacker corps

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Last season, the Lions had one of their best defensive performances in franchise history, even without one of their best leaders.

Linebacker Stephen Tulloch was lost for the season in Week 3 after suffering a torn ACL celebrating a sack. The injury meant the Lions had to move Tahir Whitehead to middle linebacker to complement DeAndre Levy and Ashlee Palmer. Josh Bynes, Julian Stanford and Kyle Van Noy also moved up the depth chart.

While Tulloch, who had 135 tackles in 2013, is slowly working his way back, the Lions are careful not to rush him and risk aggravating the injury.

“I’m back, I’m healthy,” Tulloch said in May. “I would be out there practicing if they let me. I can do drills. The organization doesn’t want me to do too much and they’re letting things play out.”

Watching was new for Tulloch, who hadn’t missed a game during his 10-year career. But the time in the lineup was valuable for Whitehead — who hadn’t started a game in his first two seasons — even if he was playing out of position (strong-side). With Tulloch back, the Lions could reap the benefits of getting Whitehead that experience.

“You can’t recreate game reps in practice,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “By him having an opportunity to play as many snaps as he did, even though it wasn’t his primary, normal position, it helped him tremendously. He got into stressful game situations, he played well all year, he made calls. He’ll be a better football player for us for it.”

The Lions were lauded last season for the strength of their front four and improved play of their secondary. But with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley gone, and Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker looking to step in, there could be some adjustment.

If that’s the case, the linebacker corps could play a more integral role, putting more of a spotlight on Tulloch, Levy and Whitehead.

“It can really help, the experience we were able to gain last year while Tulloch was out,” Whitehead said. “A few more guys were able to play, and even the way we were in practice, we were able to get a lot of reps and guys put pressure on themselves to make calls and go out and perform in practice. When the game comes, it’s easier.”

As much as the Lions value Tulloch’s production, his leadership on the sidelines and in the locker room were just as beneficial. Even after the injury, he was vocal during team and position meetings, helping Whitehead transition into his role.

“He helped tremendously because with him not actually playing, he still let us know what he saw on the field and what to expect,” Whitehead said. “He was a steady influence and acted as though he was going to play on a week-to-week basis. That’s the veteran leadership that held us together as a position group and we benefited from it.”