Lions' Melifonwu set to play against Panthers, reintroduce fans to what he can do

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have been blessed with good health in recent weeks, getting more players back from injury than losing guys to issues. But the team faces a dilemma this week, with veteran safety DeShon Elliott slated to miss his first game of the year, due to a shoulder injury he suffered last week against the New York Jets.

And while that might not seem like a huge deal, Elliott has quietly been a stabilizing force in the back end of the defense since rejoining the starting lineup following a brief benching. He's second on the team with 91 tackles and is one of only a handful of Lions players to have recorded an interception and forced a fumble. And maybe most importantly, he's stepped up as a veteran voice at a position where communication is critical.

Without him, the Lions will turn to some combination of C.J. Moore and Ifeatu Melifonwu, meaning rookie Kerby Joseph, with 702 career snaps, will be the most experienced safety on the field at any given time Saturday against the Carolina Panthers.

When a starter has been banged up mid-game, the veteran Moore has been the first man off the bench. And the special-teams standout was solid in relief of Elliott last week against the Jets. But coach Dan Campbell made it clear Melifonwu will have a defensive role against the Panthers.

This will be a significant moment for last year's third-round draft pick, who converted from cornerback to safety this offseason, but has battled a number of injury issues for the second straight season, limiting him to seven games and just six defensive snaps at his new position in 2022.

With DeShon Elliott out of Sunday's game, Ifeatu Melifonwu will havce a bigger role with significant time in the secondary.

"It means a lot," Melifonwu said about being in line to play against the Panthers. "I have to thank God for still getting this opportunity. The injuries have been tough, but I've just stayed the course, kept praying, and I finally get an opportunity. So, I'm just going to take the coaching and make the most of the opportunity."

As he's battled through quadriceps, hamstring and ankle injuries, Melifonwu has leaned on a strong support network to deal with the mental lows that come with not being available to help the team. That network is centered around his faith, family and teammates. In Detroit, the Lions have fostered a culture of players lifting up their teammates who are injured.

"Speaking from personal experience, it's guys making sure you understand you're still a piece to the puzzle," teammate Tracy Walker, who is out because of a torn Achilles, said. "The best thing I can say, you're constantly reminded you're still part of this team. You're always being shown that; you're always being told that. Every time I come into this building, that's acknowledged. 

"When (Melifonwu) was hurt, before I got hurt, I was always telling him, 'Look, we're going to need you. Get ready; you're going to be up eventually,'" Walker said. "Injuries are hard for us, so it's all about that support. Your support system is everything."

While navigating his own rehab, Walker has continued to mentor Melifonwu on the finer points of playing their shared position. Everyone knows the youngster has immense physical gifts, it's more about growing mental understanding of the entire defense and ability to relay that to teammates on the field in pressure moments on game day.

"As a cornerback, you're listening," Walker said. "As a safety, you're doing the talking, you're doing the leading. That's a huge adjustment, because I'll be honest, Iffy isn't a vocal guy. That's not him. So, being a safety, that's a bit of an adjustment. ...I definitely feel like he's ready."

Still, with both Melifonwu and Joseph having limited experience with the communication aspect of the position, middle linebacker Alex Anzalone, the unofficial quarterback of the defense, has been preparing to expand his game-day responsibilities to lend a hand.

"We're still trying to figure out the rotations and formations on defense," Anzalone said. "Me being me, I'm just putting it on myself just to make sure we're all in the right spot. ...I feel like he's interesting in the fact (Melifonwu) has all the tools. He just has to put it together and mentally go out there and play. It's really up to him how far he wants to take it. I know he's been dealing with injuries, so I'm excited to see him get his opportunity."

Melifonwu is excited, too.

"I can't really describe it," he said. "It's been a long time coming. I'm ready to show my abilities and what I can do."

Injury report

Outside of Elliott, the Lions ruled out only two other players for Saturday's game: backup offensive lineman Kayode Awosika (ankle) and fullback Jason Cabinda (illness).

Additionally, linebacker Derrick Barnes (knee) and center Frank Ragnow (foot) are questionable. Campbell said Friday that the veteran offensive lineman is expected to play.

Twitter: @justin_rogers