Lions' secondary depth puts premium on playing time

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Teez Tabor

Allen Park – When Lions general manager Bob Quinn took the job during the 2016 offseason, he pledged to restock the roster’s depth. And while there’s still work to be done at a number of position groups, the team’s secondary is as talented, deep and versatile as its been in decades.

Opposing completion percentage is down nine points, and the opposing passer rating has dropped more than 20.

And that means, when the group is largely healthy, there’s been an odd man out in the weekly game plan.

Early in the season, rookie cornerback Teez Tabor was nowhere to be seen. Due to the team’s depth at the position, he simply wasn’t needed. He was inactive five of the first seven weeks, but that allowed him to quietly develop on the practice field, without dealing with the pressure of expectations typically thrust on a second-round pick.

Now that Tabor is being worked into the mix and is coming off a season-high 39 snaps during Sunday’s victory against Tampa Bay, another promising young player has seen his playing time decrease.

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“When he wasn’t playing we said he was developing nicely, we thought he was coming along, he was practicing well, and at some point he was going to earn some time,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “And I think this was just kind of a culmination. He’s still got a long ways to go, but I thought that he played honorably last week. He was competitive, he was in the right spots, he wasn’t out of place.”

But Tabor’s gain, at least to some degree, has been Miles Killebrew’s loss.

Last season’s fourth-round pick, the hard-hitting safety quickly built up a reputation as a third-down stopper. After a strong start to the year, he looked primed to have the breakout campaign many had predicted.

Yet, in recent weeks, his playing time and production have dwindled. He’s been on the field for fewer than 10 defensive plays three of the past four weeks, and fewer than 20 five of the past seven.

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When starting strong safety Tavon Wilson went down three weeks ago with a season-ending shoulder surgery, Killebrew appeared in line to serve as the replacement.

Instead, the team moved nickel back Quandre Diggs to the spot, an unorthodox mid-season move that has paid some early dividends. He forced a pair of turnovers, including his first career interception, in Sunday’s victory over the Buccaneers.

When Wilson was banged-up earlier in the year, Killebrew had a live audition for a bigger role, and based on the current setup, the team doesn’t feel he’s quite ready to handle it it, even as optimism remains about his long-term potential.

“I think the one thing I found out in this league is when you’re a role player, rookie, young guy, and you have part-time responsibilities, sometimes you think that’ll translate, you can just throw a guy in immediately and now he can take on a full 50, 60, 70 plays,” Austin said.

“And what you find out a lot of times is that’s not it, it’s kind of a gradual growth and I think that’s where we are with him.

“I’m hoping that as we go, he’ll be able to start handling the 50 and 60 play games and being able to be an every down player, and that’s what we want,” Austin said.

“We’re still growing him, we still got a lot of faith in Miles. I think he’s got a lot of really good football in him and so we just have to make sure we try to groom him correctly, because there’s nothing worse than a young guy that gets his confidence crushed and then he’s not very good, and that’s what we don’t want.”

The reduction in playing time can be frustrating for a young player, but there’s been no sign of discontent from Killebrew, just like there wasn’t from Tabor earlier in the year. Both sunk their teeth into the preparation, biding time for when the opportunities arrive.

“You just have to be willing to contribute any way you can,” Killebrew said.

“Right now, my role is with the specific packages I’m in and on special teams, and I embrace that fully.

“This is a coaching staff that knows what they’re doing and as players we have to trust what they’re doing.”