The return of key defensive players a relief for the Lions' banged-up defense

Posted Dec 16, 2011

Last Sunday against the Vikings, the Lions' defense was on its last leg as it looked to stop Minnesota from reaching the endzone for a last-second victory.

Detroit literally ran out of defensive players. Entering the game with just four healthy cornerbacks, both Aaron Berry (shoulder) and Eric Wright (hamstring) suffered in-game injuries and were sidelined.

Cornerback Don Carey, who has been primarily a special teams player, and wide receiver Rashied Davis were inserted into the game in place of Berry and Wright.

Only when the Vikings reached the red zone on that final drive and Wright had less ground to cover could he re-enter the game.

"We got into the flow of the game and you can’t really make too many dramatic changes, so we stayed base against some packages we shouldn’t have been," said linebacker DeAndre Levy. "We really had to limit our calls because we couldn’t really match it up personnel-wise (because of the) injuries.

"But you take each week and learn from it and learn what you can and can’t do and prepare guys for those worst-case scenarios."

Despite the difficulties, the Lions did take the 34-28 win and will also see the return of multiple defensive players for this week’s game at Oakland.

Along the line, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will play in his first game since Thanksgiving, having served a two-game suspension.

In the backfield, cornerback Chris Houston is probable to return after suffering a knee injury. He has also missed two games.

"(The injury situation) has been very tough, especially since our injuries have come later in the season," said Houston of the secondary. "We are all just trying to do our best to get back on the field."

The Lions' secondary enters this game battered and bruised, but so is the Oakland offense.

The Raiders have suffered a rash of foot injuries to skill players: running back Darren McFadden has missed six games, wide receiver Jacoby Ford has missed four and wide receiver Denarius Moore has missed three.

"It is going to be an interesting match-up," said cornerback Alphonso Smith. "But I think we have a bunch of guys in our room that could be starters around this league – not here but elsewhere. We’re looking forward to the challenge."

Players have stepped up to produce for the Raiders in the absence of McFadden, Ford and Moore - most notably running back Michael Bush and wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey.

In the six games he has started, Bush has carried the ball 136 times for 527 yards and four touchdowns and is currently 12th in the AFC with 764 rushing yards.

Both players are sizeable: Bush is 6-1 and 245 pounds; Heyward-Bey is 6-2 and 210 pounds.

"I got a chance to play against the Raiders twice my rookie year and I realized really fast: if you’re on the Raiders’ roster, you’re either fast, big or both," said Smith. "All of their receivers are either 4.2 guys or 6-4 guys that can run 4.4s. It’s going to be a challenge for us this week, but I’m sure we’ll be able to do it."

Smith will be called upon to take on that challenge. Beginning camp with a broken foot, Smith has seen little playing time this season. He has played primarily on special teams and has been inactive four times this season.

He saw an increased defensive role at New Orleans and against Minnesota considering the injury to Houston and then the injuries to Berry and Wright.

"It’s one of those things where Coach always says, ‘We’re going to need everyone in the room at some point,’" said Smith. "I’m just humbled and appreciative that the coaches and my teammates believe in me to step up and make sure I can do the job well as well as the other guys that were doing it before me."

Smith certainly stepped up in Detroit's win over Minnesota, coming away with two interceptions, including one for a touchdown.

"To be a back-up, your number can be called at any time," said Houston. "He came in and stepped up and made big plays for the defense and the team. I’m very proud of him."

The Lions will need more of the same at Oakland. With a one-game lead over Chicago and Dallas in the NFC Wild Card race, a win over the Raiders would carry huge playoff implications.

The return of Houston will certainly help as well. Detroit could also see the return of Wright and safety Louis Delmas - both listed as questionable on the injury report - but neither practiced until Friday.

"We are still banged up here or there, but every team is now this time of the year," said Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham. "I think the biggest thing for our football team is (to) learn the attitude you've got to have now going into the final couple weeks and knowing how important each game is.

"We talked about four games to go; well, now it is three games to go. They are all into it and focused, but they have been all year. It is just magnified now."