Lions rookies Amani Oruwariye, Will Harris face bigger challenges down stretch
Allen Park — With games against Dwayne Haskins and Mitchell Trubisky under his belt, Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye should get a more thorough look at a tough NFL passing game on Sunday.
That’s when Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins (Michigan State), Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen play host to the Penn State rookie, who has fared well in two games of extensive defensive action.
The advanced metrics have been kind to Oruwariye, who has not allowed a pass of more than 19 yards.
“I think just understanding the game, the college game is slower than the NFL game,” defensive backs coach Brian Stewart said. “Playing man coverage in this league is tough. You’re going to cover some pretty good guys.”
Thielen has not played in over a month but could return Sunday, but Diggs is enough of a challenge, one of seven qualifying NFL wide receivers averaging more than 18 yards per catch.
In Week 17, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams could loom with a division title on the line for the Packers.
Lions rookie safety Will Harris, a third-round pick from Boston College, has also been a fixture in the defensive backfield since Quandre Diggs was traded to Seattle before the deadline.
But in five starts, Harris has just 15 tackles, given up first career touchdowns to two different no-name Chicago tight ends in coverage, and has been flagged twice for hitting with his helmet — along with a reported $28,075 on the first for good measure.
Stewart said he’s improving during the week, assuming a role as an understudy to veteran Tavon Wilson, who makes calls and adjustments, and often mentors Harris on the pre-snap reads he makes.
“Both of them are good in the classroom,” Stewart said. “Everything is important to them. Their personalities; they’re not silly guys. They’re pretty mature for their age, and I think it shows in the classroom as well as on the football field.”
Look for rookie hybrid defensive end Austin Bryant to get more snaps in the final quarter of the season.
Bryant didn’t play on Thanksgiving against Chicago after playing 16 snaps against Washington in his NFL debut. The fourth-round pick worked his way back from a pectoral muscle injury suffered during training camp on the same side as an injury that lingered at Clemson.
“I think he’s going to have a defined role mov ing forward,” linebackers coach Al Golden said. "He’s come out of the injury really well, and I’m excited to see him down the stretch here.”
Golden has been pleased with his ability at practice to rush on the edge, drop in coverage and play third downs.
Just like Stewart praised Oruwariye and Harris for their classroom work, Golden did the same for Bryant.
“We’ll see how far he can take it,” Golden said. “Really good kid, studies hard. I think that made the transition easier.”
More special teams laundry
We’ve reached the second very tough part of a special-teams coordinator calendar, John Bonamego said.
The first hurdle is the beginning of the season, when rookies and new players learn their roles and the scheme on kick coverage and blocking units.
The second one is the final portion of the season, when injuries and new faces tend to screw up the pecking order for the units — often leaving a coach like Detroit's Bonamego to piecemeal his way to the finish line.
Detroit’s results have seemed to back up Bonamego’s theory, as an early-season issue of special teams penalties has reared its ugly head lately.
According to NFLpenalties.com, the Lions committed six accepted special teams penalties in the first three weeks of the season, but combined for three over the next six games. In the last three, the number is back up to nine, including four against Dallas.
Rookie C.J. Moore had a pair of special teams penalties against Dallas, then veteran Justin Coleman had a penalty on the opening kickoff against Chicago, which was offset by a Bears’ penalty but forced Detroit to kick again to Cordarrelle Patterson. Dee Virgin then later had an unsportsmanlike conduct in the third quarter, and Miles Killebrew roughed the kicker on an extra point.
“There’s always that dynamic of young players wanting to make a play, they don’t want their guys to make a tackle,” Bonamego said. “Then in the heat of the moment, they make a poor decision.”
Reduced practice times and the annual avalanche of injuries also have contributed to mix-ups.
“The best practice for kickoff coverage really comes in the game,” Bonamego said. “There’s really no way you can simulate in practice the speed and really the violence that really takes place on that play. You really wouldn’t have anyone left to play.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.