Injury absences will test Lions' mettle vs. Falcons
Allen Park — It’s one of those sports clichés that’s rooted in truth: In football, it’s not if your team will deal with injuries, it’s when.
The Detroit Lions caught some breaks the first couple weeks. Both the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants were missing two defensive starters. And wide receiver Odell Beckham was on a pitch count Monday night, clearly not fully healed from a preseason ankle injury.
Now, in Week 3, it’s time for the Lions to cope with the injury bug.
After entering the first two games relatively unscathed, outside of some drama at punter, the Lions are banged up heading into this weekend’s matchup with the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. Rookie middle linebacker Jarrad Davis is out with a concussion. Starting safety Tavon Wilson won’t play due to a shoulder injury. And return man/power back Dwayne Washington will be sidelined for a quad strain.
There’s also concern center Travis Swanson. He suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter of Monday’s win over the Giants. He toughed it out and didn’t miss a snap, but the injury kept him out of practice all week and he’s listed as questionable for Sunday.
And while we’re not talking about quarterback Matthew Stafford or defensive end Ziggy Ansah, this is a group of important contributors. This will test Detroit’s mettle, the team’s ability to adjust and overcome.
The Lions are in a good spot to handle two of the absences. There might not be a more-capable backup on the roster than Miles Killebrew, the second-year safety who has carved out a role as a roving third-down stopper. Although starting in place of Wilson would move Killebrew out of his specialized packages, the team is confident he’s ready for the expanded role.
"Miles, I think, is just scratching the surface of being a really good football player no matter where you put him, so I don’t worry about that,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “We just know we like to have him on the field and we’ll continue to use him the way we’ve used him.”
Likely not a coincidence, Killebrew was named one of the team’s three captains for the contest.
“Being a captain, the excitement is going to end right after the coin toss,” Killebrew said. “The expanded role on the field, that’s just something that’s part of the game. Next-man-up mentality here in Detroit and that’s just the way it has to be.”
The Lions also have a couple capable options to fill Washington’s roles. Punt returner Jamal Agnew can capably handle kickoffs, while the injury clears the path for Zach Zenner to be re-inserted into the lineup after being a healthy scratch the first two games.
“If he gets an opportunity to do it this week, I think you’ll see him get it done,” coach Jim Caldwell said about Zenner. “(We) believe in him. He’s a smart guy, makes very few mistakes, and is well-rounded.”
Replacing Davis is trickier. The first-round pick has been a stabilizing force in the middle of Detroit’s defense. Despite some expected rookie struggles, he sets a tone, both physically and as a communicator.
Logically, Tahir Whitehead will wear the headset and relay calls from the sideline, like he did in 2016. But how the Lions staff their two- and three-linebacker packages will be interesting.
Rookie Jalen Reeves-Maybin got his first action against the Giants on Monday, and is the best coverage option the team has, but he’s undersized and could be a liability against the run.
“I think one of the things that you saw early with Jalen that we see is very athletic, can run, really can excel in pass coverage because he does have the ability,” Austin said. “He moves like a big defensive back, it’s what he moves like, so that’s why we put him in the game last week. We figured it was going to be a passing game, let’s see if we can get him in there and get some work with him.”
The opposite is true of Paul Worrilow, the former Falcon, who locates the ball quickly, but struggles to stick with his assignments in the passing game. There’s a reasonable chance the Lions mix and match the pair, based on the situation.
And along the offensive line, Swanson’s status will be a game-time decision. If he can’t go, you can expect Graham Glasgow to slide from left guard to center with Joe Dahl getting the start at guard.
Of course, the Lions aren’t unique with their injury woes. The Falcons come into the game missing two critical pieces: All-Pro pass rusher Vic Beasley is out with a hamstring injury and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, a key cog in the team’s impressive offensive line, won’t play because of a concussion.
Every team deals with injuries. It’s part of the game. It’s how your team responds that sets you apart. This week is a chance for the Lions to make another statement, both that they are deep enough to weather injuries and talented enough to hang with the best the NFC has to offer.