Lions notes: Melifonwu looks for strong finish to up-and-down rookie season

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The final two games of the season offer an opportunity for several members of the Detroit Lions' young roster to get better and build confidence going into next season. 

A prime example is cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu, who was selected in the third round of this year's draft, but missed nearly three months after suffering a severely strained quad muscle in the second game of the season. 

Lions cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu.

It's been a stop-and-start debut campaign for Melifonwu, who was thrust into the starting lineup for that Week 2 game in Green Bay after Jeff Okudah tore his Achilles. And Jerry Jacobs had laid claim to that starting spot by the time Melifonwu was ready to return from his lengthy absence. Between that and a COVID case earlier this month, he was limited to just 15 defensive snaps his first two games back. 

But season-ending injuries to Jacobs and Amani Oruwariye have made Melifonwu a starter by default for the remainder for the rest of the season, beginning with last week's game against Atlanta. 

"We used him in that role against (Atlanta tight end Kyle) Pitts and he did a good job in that," defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. "Obviously, he got beat for the one 35-yard, but that guy is a good player, too. But, Iffy (Melifonwu) did some good things in there.

"The one thing we want to make sure going into these last two games, we get a really good look at how we can put him in positions to utilize his skillset because he is a guy that we’re looking for in the future to be one of our main guys.”

More: Pesky Lions WR St. Brown earns Rookie of Month honors, striving to be true No. 1 receiver

Despite the long layoff, Melifonwu said he was able to knock the rust off during the three weeks of practice he was permitted before his reactivation from injured reserve. And he credited his even-keeled demeanor and staying involved in the defensive back meetings with keeping him level while dealing with the ups and downs of his rookie season. 

Now he's focused on finishing strong against some daunting competition with Seattle's D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett on deck, followed by a potential rematch against Green Bay's Davante Adams, assuming the Packers haven't locked up the No. 1 seed and opt to rest their starters in Week 18. 

"I want to finish out the year strong," Melifonwu said. "I kinda want to show, basically show what I showed in the Green Bay game, the first half when I was out there. Really until that last play, I really want to show that and show what I can do. It was tough being a rookie and missing a majority of the season. I just want to get it back to what I know I can do and what the coaches know I can do, as well." 

Madden memories

The NFL lost one of its most important contributors this week when former coach and broadcaster John Madden passed away at the age of 85. 

Lions coach Dan Campbell recalled meeting Madden during his playing days as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. 

"He used to do the training camp circuit," Campbell said. "When I was at Dallas, I met him. He was over talking to Coach (Bill) Parcells and that was the first time I got to meet him. Of course, I was a huge fan of John Madden. That was pretty surreal

"... He’s just one of those guys," Campbell said. "He’s an icon in our profession. To do it the way he did it, you win a Super Bowl, you’re a successful coach and then you go on to, really, he’s the name everybody remembers when you come into broadcasting. He’s one of those elite announcers, if you will. He’s embedded into the NFL, and Monday night, in particular."

Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said he got an unexpected call from Madden five years back. It was so unexpected, Lynn thought someone was pulling a prank on him. 

"I answered my phone and I said, ‘Hello,’ and he goes, ‘This is John Madden,'" Lynn recalled. "I say, ‘Yeah, this is Barack Obama, who the hell is this?’ He said, ‘No, this is John Madden.’ I was like, ‘Come on man, who is this? I don’t have time for this nonsense.’"

It turned out Madden was reaching out on behalf of the league to extend an invitation for Lynn to join the prestigious competition committee, which helps shape the game's rules. 

"I learned a lot from him every year when we’d meet at the combine and we’d talk about this this or that," Lynn said. "I could see why the league is as popular as it is when you have guys like coach Madden behind the scenes making the decisions that he’s making."

Big V delivering

The COVID hits have kept coming this week, with defensive tackle Michael Brockers and starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai landing on the reserve list Wednesday and wide receiver and punt returner Kalif Raymond on Thursday. 

The news for Vaitai came a day after a relatively minor restructure of his contract, clearing some much-needed immediate cap space. This week, Campbell praised the performance of the veteran offensive lineman and the impact he's had for the team this season. 

"We feel like has played pretty good ball this season," Campbell said. "We were hopeful just letting him settle in at right guard would be a good move for him and for us and it has, it's paid off. We feel like he's really settled in there and been steady.

"He's one of our best pullers in the run game and, man, he can hold the pocket," Campbell said. "He doesn't allow penetration into the quarterback's face. He's big, he's strong and he's really what you're looking for at guard. I feel like we've got a couple of good guards between he and Jonas (Jackson), so he's meant a lot, really. He's one of the biggest reasons we've been running it as successfully as we have."

After an injury-plagued first year in Detroit, Vaitai has been one of the team's most reliable players in 2021, missing just one of the first 14 games, due to a concussion. 

As Campbell noted, the team has been particularly effective running the ball, despite top running backs D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams each missing four games this season. Detroit is currently averaging 4.5 yards per carry, which would be the franchise's best single-season mark since 1997, a year before Barry Sanders retired. 

Following the contract restructure, Vaitai carries a $8.73 million cap hit for the 2022 season. That presently ranks 14th for the position, but will likely move down as new contracts are signed this offseason. 

Injury report 

Quarterback Jared Goff missed another practice with a lingering knee injury, increasing the possibility he'll miss Sunday's game in Seattle. Fullback Jason Cabinda (knee) also sat out a second straight day. 

Additionally, cornerback Saivion Smith was sidelined Thursday by an illness, while linebackers Curtis Bolton (back) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) were limited. 

Meanwhile, running back D'Andre Swift was a full participant for a second straight day, keeping him on track to return after a four-game absence due to a shoulder injury.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers