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10 QUESTIONS WITH TWENTYMAN: Which returning defender will make biggest impact?

Every week during the regular season Tim Twentyman will answer 10 good questions from his Twitter account @ttwentyman in a feature we call "10 Questions with Twentyman."

20man: It looks like the Lions are going to get three key players back on defense for the playoffs with defensive lineman Alim McNeill, cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson and edge rusher James Houston all close to getting back in the lineup. That's a nice injection of experience and talent returning to this defense for a playoff run.

Of those three, I think it will be really interesting to see how they use Gardner-Johnson. I don't see them taking Kerby Joseph or Ifeatu Melifonwu out of the lineup. Same goes for Brian Branch in the nickel. I think what we'll see is defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn getting pretty creative with some dime and three safety packages. It could allow Melifonwu with his size (6-3, 210) to play in the box a little more and be a blitzer, something he's shown to be very good at.

Adding a player like Gardner-Johnson to this secondary is significant with his playmaking and ball skills.

20man: I know the chances of moving to the No. 2 seed are slim, but they still exist. If the Lions win Sunday vs. Minnesota at 1 p.m. and both Philadelphia (at New York Giants) and Dallas (at Washington) lose, the Lions would move up to No. 2. What's better than having one home playoff game? Potentially having two home playoff games. Stranger things have happened the final week of the season.

I also believe there's something to finishing the season strong, getting to 12 wins and having some momentum heading into the playoffs. Wash that bad taste from Dallas out of their mouths.

That being said, don't be surprised if starters who are dealing with injury or have battled stuff all year don't play Sunday.

"There's some guys here, if we feel like the best thing for them would be to sit because of injury, we're thinking about that," head coach Dan Campbell said this week.

"We're taking that into consideration."

20man: I think it's interesting the Rams have decided to sit a lot of their starters this week against San Francisco, who is also sitting a number of their starters. Los Angeles has already clinched a spot and they don't seem to care whether they go to Detroit or Dallas. I kind of like that about them. Confident bunch two years removed from a Super Bowl.

There's obviously a lot of familiarity with the Packers being a division opponent and having played them twice already this season. I think from a purely matchup perspective the Lions match up with the Packers better than the Rams. Kyren Williams, Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua are a pretty lethal trio with a veteran quarterback like Matthew Stafford delivering them the football. That defense is no slouch either led by Aaron Donald.

20man: Penei Sewell has one year and the fifth-year option left on his rookie contract but I think he's likely to be re-signed before the fifth-year option kicks in. Fresh off his second Pro Bowl nod I'd expect that contract to reset the market at the tackle position. He'd be worth every penny.

Taylor Decker, 30, has one year left on the four-year, $60 million deal he signed in 2020. He's still playing good football and I don't see that dropping off anytime soon. It will just come down to GM Brad Holmes deciding to re-sign a 31-year-old Decker or go younger in free agency or the NFL Draft. Decker is a very respected member of the locker room and is a team leader. There's something to be said for that. I really don't see him going anywhere else if he wants to continue playing after 2024. Maybe that involves some competition, which knowing Decker, he wouldn't shy away from.

20man: Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson is an All-Pro player, and you just have to know going into the game that he's going to make some plays. It's limiting the big plays that is key.

This time around expect the Lions' secondary to try to be a little bit more physical with him at the line of scrimmage and try to disrupt his route and timing a little bit.

"I think some of it – combination with when we do double, how we're going to double. But also, we've got to challenge a little bit better at the line of scrimmage on some things," Campbell said this week.

"We've got to try to make some contact on a few things a little bit better."

20man: That is my expectation. Holmes will always prioritize the draft knowing that's the most efficient and cost-effective way to continue building the roster but I believe the Lions' Super Bowl window is open and teams never know how long that window stays open. I think Holmes has to prioritize getting another pass rusher opposite Aidan Hutchinson and finding a premier cornerback.

The one drawback to winning is the first-round draft pick for the Lions will be in the 20-30 range (not accounting for potential trades). That means a team is getting the fourth or fifth best pass rusher or cornerback, most likely.

We've seen pre-draft position rankings not mean a lot in some drafts, and Holmes has proven he can find Pro Bowl talent in any round of the draft, but a young core is established here and I believe it's time to bring in a couple players like they did with Gardner-Johnson. Veteran players who have experience and a track record of consistent production that are plug and play. The Lions could have north of $50 million in cap space with ways to grow that number this offseason.

20man: Edge rusher James Houston is getting closer to returning from the broken ankle he suffered Week 2 against Seattle. I think ideally the Lions would want him to get some snaps this week before the first round of the playoffs but he's still a limited participant in practice.

I may be wrong, but I think before we see him in a game, he'll need to be a full participant in practice. It's what we've seen from Gardner-Johnson. He was limited in practice the last couple weeks and we didn't see him play in the game. He's a full participant this week and I expect to see him play some on Sunday. Watch for Houston to be a full participant in practice and then I think we'll see him. I think next week in the Wild Card round is probably the best bet.

20man: Those are some talented defensive fronts in Dallas and Green Bay with elite rushers like Micah Parsons and Rashan Gary. Watching the tape of the Dallas game in particular last week there was some very uncharacteristic stuff that popped up from Detroit's play upfront we haven't seen a lot of this year.

It's one thing to be beaten physically one-on-one. This league is tough and those guys on the other side get paid too, but the missed assignments and complete whiffs on blocks showed up numerous times from the o-line, tight ends and even at receiver. That's something we haven't seen much of this year. I'm sure offensive line coach Hank Fraley had a good film session this week and I would expect the play upfront to be much better this week.

20man: It sounds great in theory, but I think that's a tough ask of a player coming off major injury who hasn't played since Week 2. 'Hey, go play a position you've taken all of eight snaps at the last two years combined.' Gardner-Johnson has played a total of 132 snaps at outside cornerback in his five seasons in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.

I certainly think Gardner-Johnson could do it, but what makes him so good are his instincts and playmaking in the middle of the field. He has the ability to read the quarterback and see what's developing in front of him and react instantly to make a play. Moving him to outside corner takes the best part of his game away, in my opinion.

20man: If the Lions and Eagles both win this weekend, both teams would have identical records against common opponents (4-2) and against the NFC (8-4). So the tiebreaker moves to strength of victory in all games – the combined record of all the teams they have defeated. In that scenario Philadelphia has a considerable advantage that would be very unlikely for Detroit to make up.

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