Willie Young seizing his opportunity

Posted Oct 4, 2013

The Lions have relied heavily on fourth-year defensive end Willie Young since starter Jason Jones was lost for the season with a knee injury

Willie Young knows the pressure is on him to perform, especially after the loss of starter Jason Jones for the season two weeks ago, he just refuses to feel it.

"It doesn’t change one bit," Young said Thursday.

In fact, he said it’s more excitement that he feels with an increased role in the defense than pressure.

"I feel like I’m going fishing every day," he said. "It’s the opportunity I’ve been waiting on.

"You always have to be ready whenever your number is called and do what you’re expected to do. To perform at this level, you have to be a professional."

That wasn’t always the case with Young in the past, but there’s been a change in the way he both carries himself and approaches the work week, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Lions.

Young has had to step in a fill a critical starting role on the Lions defensive front after Jones was lost for the season in Washington with a ruptured patellar tendon.

"I thought Willie Young played an outstanding football game last week," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. "I have never seen him play like that. The run, the pass, it didn’t make any difference."

Young has 11 tackles and a sack on the season, but he is impacting the game in other ways that don’t always show up on the stat sheet, just like a lot of other Lions defensive lineman.

Case in point, it was Young’s rush and near sack on Robert Griffin III two weeks ago in Washington that directly led to the Chris Houston interception.

Last week, Young took out the whole right side of the Bears offensive line and allowed Ndamukong Suh to get in on Jay Cutler and force a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown by Nick Fairley.

Young has seen his snap percentages increase each and every week as the Lions coaching staff learns to trust their fourth-year defensive end more and more. He played 54 percent of the defensive snaps vs. Minnesota Week 1, but that number has increased to 68, 74 an 75 percent in subsequent weeks.

"Willie hasn’t been a guy that we had to rely on full time," head coach Jim Schwartz said. "He had part time roles and he’s been effective at times in those roles. When Jason Jones went down, he really needed to pick it up and focus. He’s done that.

"Now we’re four games through the season, but I think we have seen some really good signs from him. We are going to rely on him over the course of the next three-quarters of the season and longer. I think that’s been the big change. Willie has always been a guy that when he goes in to the game has made plays, but he’s been a lot more consistent. He’s very serious about helping this team."

That starts with never being satisfied, which it sounds like Young is not.

"Not good enough," he said when asked to assess his performance thus far. "I’m definitely not satisfied with my performance. Anytime I can be a factor on anything, even if it’s a tackle for a five-yard gain, I want to be a part of that. It means something to me. Setting the edge and letting the interior guys make plays. Sacks. Anything."

It’s never really a question of if injuries are going to happen in the NFL, but when. The winning teams are able to battle through them with role players stepping into starting roles and seizing that opportunity.

"I think that he realizes how much everyone is relying on him," Schwartz said. "That’s a different role than when you’re a part-time player. He has responded well in what he has been asked to do. I think that’s a good sign."