Allen Park – When you start the season 1-2, it’s easy to scour the stat sheet looking for areas of improvement. For that reason, Detroit Lions return man Andre Roberts has garnered some negative attention for his early-season ineffectiveness.
It’s not that Roberts has been awful, just uninspiring. He’s averaging 20.0 yards on kickoffs and 7.6 yards per punt. Those figures both rank in the bottom half of the league, largely because of a lack of explosive plays. Thus far, his longest kickoff return has been 25 yards, and longest punt return is 15 yards.
The Lions have tinkered putting other players in the role. Ameer Abdullah, who ranked second in the NFL last season, fielded one kickoff resulting in a touchback, before a foot injury landed him on injured reserve. Golden Tate handled a punt, but was forced to signal for a fair catch.
The only other player to have recorded any stats as a return man is rookie Dwayne Washington, who has averaged a slightly better, but far from spectacular, 23 yards on two kickoff returns.
Part of the criticism toward Roberts, and the Lions’ return game as a whole, is the new touchback rule on kickoffs, which gives teams taking a knee the ball at the 25-yard line. In Sunday’s loss to the Pakcers, Roberts returned three kicks and failed to reach the 25 each time.
“Well, there are a number of different situations there where we need to block better, we would have got a little bit more of a crack to go,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “There were a couple situations where, if you turn one guy loose in this league on a punt return or a kickoff return, that guy is going to make the play. We were not as effective in those situations as we should have been in a couple of those situations.”
Even though the Lions have failed to net a big return through three games, Caldwell did say, situationally, the potential reward is worth the risk. That was the case when Roberts brought one out of the end zone late in the third quarter, when the Lions were down 17 points. A big return in that situation could lead to a quick score and help spark a comeback.
“Sometimes, that five yards or so, you check the percentages of drives that start at a particular position that end in a score, it’s rather slim, in percentage points, between starting at the 19 and the 23, for example,” Caldwell said. “The opportunity to get it out beyond that, if you think you have a good return that can get blocked up, it’s sometimes worth the risk. Sometimes we’ll take the shot at it.”
Caldwell said he remains confident with Roberts in the return role, but it’s expected that Washington will continue to get an occasional opportunity.
“We have certain returns for certain guys, certain things that we have matched up,” Caldwell said. “You could see a number of guys back there. He’s one of those guys.”
Caldwell declined to comment on reports from ESPN’s Adam Schefter and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport regarding the long-term status of Abdullah.
Schefter reported that Abdullah suffered a torn ligament in his foot and is expected to miss the rest of the season, while Rapoport reported the Lions are optimistic Abdullah will return following the team’s Week 10 bye.
Schefter also reported that defensive end Ezekiel Ansah will miss Sunday’s game against the Bears with a high ankle sprain.
When asked if there are any updates for Abdullah and Ansah, Caldwell said: “Nothing more than what’s on our injury report.”