Lions notes: Defensive backs coach Pleasant forced to prepare players on the fly

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Aubrey Pleasant has every excuse in the world at his disposal, he's just not interested in using them.

The Detroit Lions defensive backs coach has had a difficult job from the jump, taking over an exceedingly young and inexperienced group, but he embraced that challenge. Then the injury bug bit hard out the gate with Jeff Okudah knocked out for the season in regular season opener and rookie backup Ifeatu Melifonwu missing half the year after suffering a thigh injury in Week 2. 

Aubrey Pleasant has had to juggle his defensive backs throughout the season.

But none of that compares to what Pleasant has had to navigate the past two weeks, with seven of his players landing on the COVID/reserve list, overlapping with another season-ending blow to upstart rookie Jerry Jacobs. 

That's left Pleasant in a position where he's had to prepare a number of practice squad players and roster newcomers to contribute on short notice against the Arizona Cardinals, one of the league's more potent offensive attacks. 

"This is my job, this is my profession," Pleasant said. "I take these challenges personally. Right now, I really, deep down, grab back some of my experiences of being a high school football coach, coaching what they give you, making every man learn, be prepared and ready to go.

"I really believe some of those past experiences have been able to help me throughout this entire season, but more specially these last two weeks," Pleasant said. "I know, at the end of the day, my job is really evaluated by the way that my guys play and the amount of plays they're able to make. At the end of the day, no matter who is out there putting on a Detroit Lions helmet and uniform, if you play in the defensive backfield, the standard is the standard for me."

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Pleasant has lost at least one player in his room to COVID six of the past eight days, so you'll have to forgive him if he didn't want to directly answer who will start and who will play on Sunday. 

"At this point in time, in this season, I am not confident about anybody playing until Sunday morning," Pleasant said, trying to laugh in the face of the tribulations. 

But for that reason, he's continued to lean heavily on cross training the players he does have available, so no matter the circumstances, whoever is called upon to play will understand the assignments and play calls for the different jobs within the secondary. 

And Pleasant is also doing his best to take the silver-lining approach to Sunday. He's excited that some players who normally wouldn't get an opportunity to play, will have a chance to show what they can do. 

"I think the one thing that we did a really did a good job with is we brought in some very hungry individuals that understand where they are in their career and they understand the opportunity they have at hand," Pleasant said. "I would be remiss if I didn't say that all these young men are almost foaming at the mouth for the opportunity to be able go out and play."

No reinforcements expected

Despite the NFL modifying restrictions for its return-to-play protocols with vaccinated players who test positive for COVID-19, Lions coach Dan Campbell isn't optimistic it will help the Lions this week. 

"I think that it’s highly unlikely for us for that to happen," Campbell said. "I know we felt like talking about it last night, but some of the things that have come into play, I don’t think will help us. Now, who knows? Maybe we get lucky, but I don’t think it bodes well for us right now."

The Lions currently have nine players on the COVID/reserve list, including three practice squad players. The group is headlined by starting safety Tracy Walker and running back Jamaal Williams. 

Center Evan Brown, who tested positive last Monday, is the only player the Lions have activated off the list in the past two weeks. 

Shutting it down

Campbell also confirmed T.J. Hockenson underwent surgery on his thumb this week. The team ended up placing the tight end on injured reserve Friday afternoon, promoting Shane Zylstra off the practice squad to fill the void on the roster. 

Hockenson's injury occurred against the Minnesota Vikings earlier this month and Campbell described it as a partial tear and bone bruise. After getting two opinions, it was Hockenson who made the decision to immediately go forward with surgery. 

"We encourage these guys to get it assessed, you get a second opinion, and then the player weighs the options and that’s what it comes down to," Campbell said. 

Rookie rebound 

Despite both D'Andre Swift (shoulder) and Williams being sidelined last week against Denver, rookie running back Jermar Jefferson saw just three offensive snaps in the loss to the Broncos. Instead, the team opted to lean on practice squad player Craig Reynolds. 

Reynolds flourished with the opportunity, racking up 99 yards from scrimmage with 11 carries and a pair of receptions. 

Earlier in the week, Campbell explained Jefferson's role had been muted because he was still working through an ankle injury and also missed a day of practice because of the flu, which swept through the roster during the week. This week, position coach Duce Staley said he anticipates Jefferson having a larger role in the game plan. 

A seventh-round pick out of Oregon State, Jefferson has appeared in just six games, gaining 65 yards on 10 carries, while adding another 23 yards on four receptions. 

Injury report

In addition to Hockenson and Swift — who will miss his third straight game — the Lions have also ruled out outside linebacker Julian Okwara (ankle). He missed last week’s game against Denver, as well.

Linebackers Alex Anzalone and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, guard Jonah Jackson, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, wide receiver Josh Reynolds and offensive tackle Will Holden have all been listed as questionable for Sunday's game against Arizona.

Anzalone (ankle) and Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) returned to practice in a limited capacity this week, while Reynolds tweaked a thigh muscle on Thursday and was limited that day and Friday.

Jackson, who is the only Lions player to play every offensive snap this season, didn’t practice all week due to a back injury.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers