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Are the Lions for real? Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers look at the Lions as they roll into Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field. Detroit News

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Allen Park — In his sixth season with the Lions, linebacker Tahir Whitehead has both exceeded and fallen short of expectations. He went from a relatively unknown fifth-round draft pick, to a special teams standout, to an impressive injury replacement when the team lost Stephen Tulloch to an ACL injury in 2014.

The Lions re-signed Whitehead last year and made him the team’s permanent middle linebacker, but despite leading the team with 132 tackles, it would be unreasonable to say he lived up to expectations. The team drafted Jarrad Davis this offseason and immediately gave him Whitehead’s job, bouncing the veteran back outside.

But in that role, as the Lions’ weak side linebacker, Whitehead is thriving and playing some of the finest football of his career.

“He’s playing probably more confident than ever,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Thursday. “I guess that comes with being in the same system for a while. You kind of know the ins and outs. He kind of knows me, knows what I’m going to call maybe at certain times. So, I think that’s been good for him, and he’s played really well. I’m really happy for him.”

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This is Whitehead’s fourth season with Austin. The familiarity with the coach and scheme makes a difference, so much so that Whitehead can often guess the play call before it’s relayed down from Austin.

Whitehead has also benefited from emulating the film study and practice habits of productive veterans who have come before him, guys like Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Glover Quin. And, of course, there’s no substitute for experience.

All added up, Whitehead appears to be taking his game to another level.

“It’s just the experience and understanding, really,” Whitehead said. “The alignments the offense is giving you, what plays they’re going to run and just triggering, trusting it. I see stuff and I’m like, 'OK, well, that looks like a run.' I’m firing and I’m going to get the ball carrier. I’m not being hesitant or questioning myself like I used to. I’m playing football and not thinking twice.”

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Through four games, Whitehead has recorded 25 tackles and been part of three turnovers, intercepting a pass and recovering two fumbles. He’s improved as a run defender and in coverage, with Pro Football Focus grading him as the sixth-best linebacker in the NFL to this point, recently labeling his performance part of a career year.

Not that he’s resting on his early-season laurels.

“You say year, like the season’s over,” Whitehead said. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of football to play. I just want to go out there and keep executing and just doing my job.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/justin_rogers

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