Allen Park — Football players often get trapped in a world of clichés, not wanting to say anything that causes them to stand out from the crowd to their coaching staff or a future opponent.
Not Akeem Spence and certainly not this week.
The Lions defensive tackle will make his return to Tampa, the place he called home for four years, to battle the team that drafted him, and the team that didn’t want him back when he was a free agent this past offseason.
“Yeah, I’m very bitter, but bitter with a smile on my face,” Spence said. “This is a good bitter. Don’t get me wrong, I love those guys, especially the guys on defense, it’s just something, when you’ve been somewhere for four years, and you helped build it up and you’ve got to go disappear elsewhere. I took that kind of personal, because I felt like I was one of the good guys around that building.”
The sentiment probably isn’t unusual, but few players rarely admit it publicly. Contrast Spence’s comments to right tackle Rick Wagner’s a week earlier, prior to his return to Baltimore. The typically soft-spoken lineman called it an odd experience, but expressed interest in seeing his former teammates before getting down to business. There was no sense of animosity.
Spence has no intention of hiding those feelings.
“Obviously, getting the win is the most important thing, but I really want to dominate,” he said.
Spence generated healthy interest on the market, including from two of Tampa Bay’s division rivals, but he said Detroit showed the most, which is generally code for offered the most money. He inked a three-year, $9 million deal this past offseason.
Before he signed, he consulted with Joe Cullen, his former position coach who spent three years with the Lions from 2006-08. Cullen spoke highly of Detroit — both the city’s blue-collar work ethic and the Lions organization.
Spence said the character of the team shined through in the loss to Saints this season, when the Lions fell behind 45-10 early in the third quarter, but battled back within one a score before ultimately falling short. He said he’s been on teams that would have given up, but he respected the fight his teammates showed that afternoon.
Spence has been happy with his individual performance his first year in Detroit, referring to his consistency, but acknowledged he might be coming off his worst game of the year, when the Ravens routinely used wham blocks to knock him off his game.
With the Lions, he has played a big role in the team’s defensive line rotation. He moved into the starting lineup following Haloti Ngata’s season-ending injury and averaged 40 snaps per game, recording 24 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble.
“Yeah, Akeem’s playing good football,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said. “And he’s a guy that we hated to lose, but the way the rules are set up he had a chance to exercise his options as a free agent and he’s doing a nice job. He plays with really good leverage, excellent quickness and he’s got that low center of gravity, so he’s a powerful player. If you’re not ready, you’ll get knocked backwards.”
But Koetter’s comments about losing Spence come across as disingenuous when he couldn’t recall how much effort the team put into re-signing the defender. Spence was asked how he remembered the negotiations.
“If he doesn’t remember, I don’t remember,” he said. “It is what it is. They’re going to have to deal with this whole D-line, but especially me. I’ve had this one circled for a long a time.
“I can’t really say what I want to say, but just know, this one is kind of personal.”
Spence called the December trip to Tampa an early Christmas present. His family still lives in the area, and it will be good to see them, but what he’s most excited about is his opportunity to hit quarterback Jameis Winston.
Spence joked about eating a “W” as a sack celebration, referencing the widely mocked pregame speech given by the young quarterback this season.
Asked for some parting thoughts, Spence implored fans to tune in on Sunday. He’s welcoming the spotlight to be on him because he’s intent on backing up his words.