Lions poke fun at Amani Oruwariye's luck, but third-year CB maximizing his opportunities
Allen Park — Despite the team's winless record, four Detroit Lions players currently rank among the top 10 at their position in Pro Bowl voting.
Two, long snapper Scott Daly and fullback Jason Cabinda, likely benefit from being near the top of the online ballot. Long snappers are listed alphabetically and fullbacks are listed by rushing yardage, where Cabinda's 23 yards rank third.
Another, tight end T.J. Hockenson, is a no-brainer. Coming off a Pro Bowl selection a year ago, he checks in at seventh, exactly where he ranks in receiving yardage at the position this year.
The last Lions player in the top 10 is cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who, statistically, is having a breakout season. Through 11 games, he's snagged five interceptions, which has him tied for third in the NFL.
"It’s an honor to even have my name mentioned in that," Oruwariye said. "I’ve definitely worked my tail off to try to get to that point, but there’s so much farther to go. I feel like my ceiling is the sky."
Interceptions are an easy barometer for fans around the country casting their vote for a cornerback deserving of the postseason honor. But the stat can be deceptive. To a large extent, that rings true for Oruwariye. His first four interceptions were a matter of good fortune more than anything.
Against Baltimore in Week 3, Lamar Jackson threw the ball directly to Oruwariye, who was sitting in a deep zone. The next week, the cornerback made an athletic play, corralling a ball that had been deflected at the line of scrimmage by linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. A couple weeks later, it was another errant throw, this time a Joe Burrow pass high and behind rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase, which landed in corner's waiting arms. Similarly, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield sailed a throw past wide-open Jarvis Landry, where Oruwariye was the happy recipient.
To be fair, a big part of being successful in the NFL is making the plays that come your way. It's not a flaw to be in the right place at the right time, but it is critical to maximize those opportunities.
Oruwariye certainly has done that through the first half of the season, but it didn't stop him from getting some gentle razzing from his coaches and teammates.
"We call him Lucky Charms around here," safety Tracy Walker said. "Plays come to him. It's falling right in his lap. God bless me and hopefully I get one like that, but hey, in the meantime I'm going to continue to do what I do."
Coach Dan Campbell has similarly needled the turnover-producing cornerback.
"I keep telling him, he needs to buy me a lotto ticket or I’m going to give him money and he can pick the numbers because he’s coming up with them," Campbell said last week.
Oruwariye is happy to play along, especially if the picks keep coming.
“Yeah, whatever we can do to get the ball to our offense, I’ll take it," he said. "If that means calling me Lucky Charms, call me Lucky Charms. But yeah, the ball, it’s been finding me and I’m just making sure I can secure it every single time I can."
Campbell's comments came before Oruwariye snagged his fifth, and nearly sixth interception against the Chicago Bears last Thursday. But unlike the previous four, these were the results of outstanding individual efforts by the cornerback, playing tight man coverage and undercutting routes.
Oruwariye couldn't finish the play on the first, when he stepped in front of a ball intended for former teammate Jesse James in the end zone. The ball was securely in the cornerback's hands, but came dislodged was James yanked Oruwariye down from behind by the defender's helmet.
Regardless, the pass breakup on third down forced the Bears to settle for a field goal.
Two drives later, after the Lions coughed the ball up on a fumble in their own territory, Oruwariye made his best play of the season, undercutting a post pattern intended for Damiere Byrd in the end zone and fully extending to snag the interception.
"I was happy to make it for my team," Oruwariye said. "Us being in the red zone and it being so critical of a situation, I was just happy I can get us off the field. It was a good play. I was happy I could make it, but like I said, situationally, it was good for the team."
Because of the turnovers, Oruwariye has one of the best passer ratings against when targeted this season. Among cornerbacks who have played at least 50% of their team's defensive snaps, his 69.8 passer rating against is tied for 10th, according to Pro Football Focus. He's allowed 31 completions on 47 targets for 430 yards and two scores, to go with the five takeaways.
Another key aspect of his success has been his durability, at a position where his teammates have struggled to stay healthy the past two seasons. He played more than 1,000 defensive snaps a year ago and has been on the field for greater than 98% of the reps this season.
"I take a lot of pride in that," Oruwariye said. "Just the simple fact of being out there, you give our team a chance to win. In this league, taking care of your body is such a big thing. Your body is everything, so I just try to stay in a routine of what I do and just be available."
But for all the individual success, and the recognition that's starting to come with it, Oruwariye knows there's plenty of room for improvement in his game. Early in the season, he consistently acknowledged the role luck played with his interceptions, and he's focused on continually refining the details of his game.
One big change this season has come in how he prepares for his matchups. Previously playing in a heavy man-to-man scheme under former coach Matt Patricia, Oruwariye's film study was committed to his individual assignments.
Now, playing in a system with more diverse coverage looks, defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant has his cornerbacks thinking about the bigger picture, even when the next man on the docket is the reigning NFC Player of the Month, Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson.
"Yeah, not getting into a personal battle and really just knowing how the offensive coordinator is trying to use him in their system," Oruwariye said about the week's focus. "We took a step back, at least I took a step back, and realized just how he's being used, where they're trying to get him in certain route combinations. Just looking at it more from an offensive coordinator perspective rather than just a one-on-one battle type of thing.
"We'll see how it goes, but he's a good player, man. We're going to compete and go at it."