Allen Park — Had Jamal Agnew landed on injured reserve last season, the Detroit Lions’ biggest concern would have been figuring out how to replace him in the return game. And while that issue remains with Agnew’s left knee injury requiring him to be placed on IR — given the difficulty of finding comparable production for a player who earned All-Pro honors as a punt returner a year ago — compensating for his loss on defense will also be a challenge.
Through five games running the team’s new defensive scheme, the Lions have rotated through several options to cover the slot, but none have played more snaps than Agnew.
So the question for coach Matt Patricia becomes, who will be the next man up?
“He’s obviously a very valuable player to our team,” Patricia said. “Really can do a great job of turning field position, does a great job when he’s out there at gunner, plays defense. So, a pretty multiple, versatile player for us. But that’s the nature of the game. We have guys that are going to have to step up and fill those roles whether it’s one person or multiple guys. We’ll just try to put the best guy out there that we can.”
The next three players with the most coverage work in the slot are Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs. Most weeks, Slay and Lawson are the team’s starting outside cornerbacks, while Diggs has essentially made a full-time transition to safety after three-plus years at the nickel.
“It’s two different roles,” Lawson said. “On the outside, it’s really an island. You’re really by yourself. When you’re in the nickel you have to constantly communicate with the safeties and the linebackers. It’s definitely different knowing what to do, making sure you know what to do with you, the linebackers and the safeties all on the same page.”
Would the Lions consider a drastic shift in their coverage looks, shaking up the chemistry of the team’s most consistent unit this season? Slay is coming off an All-Pro season of his own and obviously isn’t a viable option. He’ll continue to slide inside when assigned to situationally cover a specific receiver.
Meanwhile, Diggs and Lawson are performing at high levels in their current roles, but would be willing to do whatever the coaching staff asks of them.
Moving Diggs back into a regular nickel role makes plenty of sense, at least on downs requiring a fifth or sixth defensive back. With Tavon Wilson and rookie Tracy Walker, the team has talent to backfill the safety spot in those situations.
Lawson, on the other hand, is allowing fewer than 50 percent of balls thrown his direction to be completed, while keeping the penalties in check. He’s been flagged just once in coverage this season, a 5-yard defensive pass interference in Week 1.
He’s also is a solid tackler, correcting some issues he had last season and not missing an opportunity to make a stop in 2018.
“Tackling is very important in the slot,” Lawson said. “It’s important playing corner, but it’s more important playing slot because you’re also asked to add to the run game. You have to be able to come up and make tackles, as well. Not just tackles, you have to make good open-field tackles.”
Another option is Cre’Von LeBlanc, the former Chicago Bear who was promoted off the practice squad last week, but struggled in his debut with the Lions. He’ll need to show quick improvement to maintain the coaching staff’s trust.
In reality, it's unlikely to be one player, and given what we know about Patricia’s focus on matchup-based game plans, the playing time in the slot could shift significantly, week to week, depending on the opponent.
This week will provide a stiff test. While rarely mentioned among the league’s top receiving corps, the Dolphins offered a versatile and varied challenge, with four different receivers being targeted in the slot this season.
That group is led by former Patriot Danny Amendola and one of the NFL's most dangerous open-field receivers, Albert Wilson, who scored a pair of long touchdowns in Sunday’s win over the Bears and is averaging a league best 14.9 yards after the catch.