Lions' defensive backs endangered species
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Will the last Detroit Lions defensive back standing please cover the receiver?
It’s become an absolute revolving door for this team’s depleted secondary. The Lions have played only six games, but they’ve already started five different cornerbacks and five different safeties.
Welcome to life as a defensive back in the NFL, one of the most brutal jobs in professional sports.
Think about what they’re asked to do. A cornerback must cover big and fast receivers, such as Detroit’s 6-foot-5, 236-pound Calvin Johnson and Houston’s 6-3, 230-pound Andre Johnson, and then come up and tackle physical running backs, like Houston’s 228-pound Arian Foster and San Francisco’s 217-pound Frank Gore.
“That’s why they’re paid so well,” Lions safety Erik Coleman said of cornerbacks. “That’s why they’re in such high demand. You have to have world-class speed and you have to have toughness.”
When cornerback Alphonso Smith got released a week before the season opener by the Lions, he knew he wouldn’t be out of a job for too long.
Smith just had to wait because sooner or later, probably sooner, some team was going to come calling after another one of its corners went down.
It was inevitable and, sure enough, that team ended up being his former employer just last week.
“That’s something I learned two years ago — that corners always get hurt,” Smith said. “I didn’t know that coming in. I would think some other position like linemen or linebacker or running back.
“But we are the most-often injured position. When I got released, I was kind of expecting a call earlier than Week 7 in the season.”
No team has been hit harder by injuries on the back end than the Lions. Here’s a breakdown of wounded:
• Cornerback Chris Houston missed the first two games with an ankle injury.
• Cornerback Bill Bentley missed the second game with a concussion and the sixth game with a shoulder injury.
• Cornerback Drayton Florence suffered a broken forearm in the second game and is still on the injured list.
• Cornerback Jacob Lacey suffered a concussion in the fifth game and is still out.
• Cornerback Chris Greenwood underwent surgery for a sports hernia over the summer and didn’t return to practice until last week.
• Safety Louis Delmas missed the first four games following knee surgery.
• Safety Amari Spievey missed the fourth game because of a groin injury and suffered a concussion in the sixth game that could keep him out for a while.
What has Houston learned from it all?
"You've got to have a lot of cornerbacks on your team," he said.
For the Lions, it's led to some desperate scenarios in the secondary, which has held together surprisingly well under the circumstances.
Florence started two weeks after getting released by Denver and signed by the Lions. Safety Ricardo Silva started a day after being promoted from practice squad to the active roster. Smith became the top nickel back (fifth DB in passing situations) four days after re-signing. Sixth-round draft pick Jonte Green was forced into the starting lineup long before he was really ready.
Although this is an extreme for one team, it’s sadly a trend that’s going to continue to some extent throughout the league, especially with the mass diagnosis of concussions these days.
Defensive backs, particularly cornerbacks, just aren’t built to take the pounding that they face.
“Almost all their collisions are built-up speed,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “Those guys can all run, so they can build up some speed and generally they are hitting guys that are bigger than them, who have also built up speed.”
Now, consider the size of some of the Lions' cornerbacks, and the problem is obvious: Bentley is 5-10, 176 pounds; Lacey 5-10, 177; Houston 5-11, 178.
The Lions' biggest corners are Florence (6-foot, 193) and Greenwood (6-1, 193).
Cornerbacks, ideally, would be in the mold of Seattle’s duo — 6-4, 221-pound Brandon Browner and 6-3, 195-pound Richard Sherman.
Perhaps those types of bigger bodies are the future of the position, but for now, they’re a rarity.
Cornerbacks have to be able to run with speedsters and move their hips to make quick cuts. Not many athletes the size of Browner and Sherman can do that effectively enough.
“It’s one of those positions, it’s very difficult for a big guy to play,” Schwartz said. “Every other position has gotten consistently bigger. But even the tall guys at corner aren’t exactly real thick (in most cases).”
Coleman added: “It’s hard to find a guy who can move as well as a smaller corner in a big body. That’s a lot to ask for.”
Most of the recent rule changes in the NFL have helped protect offensive players, particularly quarterbacks and receivers.
What to do to protect defensive backs isn’t so clear.
“I just see it as a product of the game,” Schwartz said. “I don’t see anything else that they could do there.”
Florence also had no answers, conceding, “That’s what you sign up for when you play this game.”
So what’s the solution?
Simple: Keep a lot of available defensive backs on speed dial.