Allen Park — For Miles Killebrew, it was all in the eyes.
In last weekend’s season-opening 35-23 win over the Cardinals, the Lions were in danger of falling into a 14-0 hole in the first quarter as Carson Palmer and company were threatening in the red zone.
Facing a third-and-goal at the 2, the Cardinals ran a delayed screen for tight end Jermaine Gresham and Killebrew read it perfectly, crashing into the backfield and latching onto Gresham’s leg for a four-yard loss and a touchdown-saving tackle.
It was a snippet of Killebrew’s continued progress and an impressive start for the second-year safety, who finished the game with two tackles on defense, one on special teams, two passes defensed and a game-sealing 35-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like I just might be in the right place at the right time, but our defensive line was getting after (Palmer),” Killebrew said earlier this week of his third-down takedown. “It was set up for me to make the play and I was able to execute it when it came my way.”
However, one could argue it’s a play Killebrew (6-foot-2, 222 pounds) might not have made and been a step slow to react to last year as a rookie. Yet, his ability to quickly recognize Gresham releasing from his block showcased Killebrew’s instincts and improved field awareness, an area of his game he put an onus on in the offseason.
“The eyes are the key as a secondary guy. If you’re looking at the right things, it gives you a good chance of making the correct plays,” Lions defensive backs/safeties coach Alan Williams said Thursday. “Naturally if you’re looking at the wrong things, there’s no telling what’s the percentage of you being successful.
"Now I think (Killebrew) has more disciplined eyes, he’s looking at the right things, he’s keying the right things. The ultimate thing again is it’s getting him to the ball and to the correct place a lot faster because his eyes are more disciplined.
“He has the talent and it’s a confidence thing now. He has confidence that he’s looking at the correct things. He has confidence that he knows the call and how to execute the calls, so now all the physical gifts that he has being strong, being big, being fast, all those things are starting to show because he knows what he’s doing. He’s looking at the right things rather than just guessing and just going out there and balling.”
Last season, Killebrew, 24, carved out a niche as a third-down stopper and played primarily in the Lions’ dime defensive set. He was efficient in his limited playing time, registering 28 tackles, a pass defensed and an interception all while averaging less than 10 defensive snaps per game.
This year, it appears Killebrew is poised to play an expanded role, as evidenced by his career-high 29 defensive snaps in the opener.
“Year 1 and Year 2 you see a big jump. You get more comfortable, you understand the game more, you understand your scheme more,” safety Glover Quin said of Killebrew. “You’re just seeing those things, seeing him be more of who he is. We know he’s a playmaker. He’s getting opportunities and he’s doing just that.”
And Killebrew’s increasing familiarity with the terminology and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s system has translated into him moving faster, playing faster and bringing the defense’s motto to fruition — be in the right place at the right time and when the opportunity present itself, makes the play you’re supposed to make.
He proved that on the third-down stop of Gresham by sticking to his assignment as well as being in position to corral the tipped ball on Palmer's intended pass to running back Andre Ellington that led to his first professional touchdown.
“Coach TA, he does a very good job of explaining what we’re trying to get done each week, so you go into the game with a good idea of what our goals are and what we need to accomplish for that game,” Killebrew said. “I trust the scheme that he has. This is my second year in the system, so I can see how it’s all coming together and it’s exciting to watch. It’s exciting to be a part of.”
The next step for Killebrew is consistency.
According to Williams, Killebrew models himself after Quin, who is a prime example that the key to consistency on the field is consistent preparation off the field in how one studies, lifts weights and watches film.
So far, Killebrew appears to be on the right track. Now it’s just a matter of those impact plays showing up on a regular basis.
“It was a good start, but it’s just the start,” Williams said. “He can take it as far as he wants to take it by his preparation. He has the gifts. How far he goes, that’s yet to be seen, but we like our chances with him.”