ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Ideally, starters don’t have to play much, if at all, on special teams in the NFL.
The extra workload is a negative for them, never mind the increased potential for injury.
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
For Detroit Lions starting cornerback Chris Houston, that’s meant a new role on the kick-coverage team.
It’s a surprising move in that Houston ranks high among players the Lions can least afford to lose. But he’s also a reliable veteran who can help put an end to the long returns that plagued the club earlier in the season.
“There have been a lot of injuries, so they put me on there,” said Houston, in his sixth year in the league. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for the team. That’s what they asked me to do and that’s what I did.
“I really can’t question the need for the team and what the coaches have me do. That would be like I’m being selfish. I don’t want to be that type of teammate. I know starters play (special teams) on other teams. They may not play kick coverage, but they might play punt return.”
Houston, 28, covered kicks earlier in his career with Atlanta.
“I may have done it a couple times in games last year, too,” he said. “It’s simple. Basically, go in there, read your keys, fill up holes and don’t let the ball get outside of you and make the tackle.”
Houston has replaced rookie Jonte Green on the far left side. Both of the kick returns allowed for touchdowns earlier in the season — a 105-yarder by Tennessee’s Darius Reynaud in Week 3 and another 105-yarder by Minnesota’s Percy Harvin in Week 4 — broke to that same side.
“We had some younger guys in there earlier in the season, didn’t quite know the position,” Houston said. “I guess they felt the need to put me on there.”
Lions coach Jim Schwartz said: “We’re going to put the guys out there that we think could best stop a kick. Chris is a fast guy. He’s got good instincts against the run.”
The Lions have such a reputation since allowing those touchdowns in consecutive weeks that opponents are showing no fear in returning kicks from deep in the end zone.
It’s an insult, but in a strange way, it could work in the Lions’ favor, provided there are no more major breakdowns.
Take last Sunday’s game. Seattle’s Leon Washington returned a kick from 6 yards deep and got stopped at the 13-yard line.
“The odds are in our favor when somebody brings it from deep, so we have to make those plays,” Schwartz said. “We haven’t always proved that we can.
“I thought we did a very good job on coverage (in the 28-24 victory over the Seahawks). I thought that was a big factor.”
FROM TEAMMATE TO FOE
To get an update on Lions receiver/return specialist Mike Thomas, all you have to do is read the opponent’s game notes from early this week.
Thomas was acquired Tuesday in a trade with Jacksonville, which just happens to be the team the Lions play Sunday.
“I have not been involved in anything like this,” Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said. Mularkey didn’t sound too concerned that Thomas would reveal any game-changing details to his new team.
“It’s a different scheme going into this week,” Mularkey said. “He hadn’t heard anything for this game plan.”
Thomas led the Jaguars in receptions each of the last two seasons (66 in 2010 and 44 in 2011), but he was being phased out in favor of recent draft picks, including rookie Justin Blackmon.
“We’re kind of going in a different direction,” Mularkey said. “I’m glad Mike’s getting an opportunity to start fresh there.”
Asked to describe what the Lions are getting in Thomas, Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert said, “Mike’s a solid player. It’s unfortunate that he’s not on our team anymore, but that’s just part of the business. He’s a guy who can stretch the field vertically and is a fast athlete.”
Receiver Calvin Johnson (knee) was one of eight potential starters who didn’t practice Wednesday for the Lions. The others were running back Mikel Leshoure (personal day), linebacker DeAndre Levy (hamstring), defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee), defensive end Cliff Avril (back), cornerback Bill Bentley (shoulder), and safeties Louis Delmas (knee) and Amari Spievey (concussion).
Cornerbacks Jacob Lacey (concussion) and Drayton Florence (broken forearm) returned to practice. Lacey has been cleared to play Sunday. Florence is not eligible to return to the active roster until the Nov. 18 game against Green Bay.