Every team in the NFL suffers injuries during the course of a season that will require young players to step up and take on bigger responsibilities.
For the Detroit Lions, that moment has come early in 2021, with second-year cornerback Jeff Okudah suffering a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon in the season-opening loss to San Francisco last week. Third-round rookie draft pick Ifeatu Melifonwu is expected to be the first guy asked to step in and play a bigger role in place of Okudah, starting this week in Green Bay.
"I'm looking forward to it," Melifonwu said Wednesday of potentially playing a bigger role on defense Monday at Lambeau Field. "It's a chance for one of us to step up. Kind of that next-man-up mentality and do what we can to prepare."
Melifonwu filled in for Okudah after he was injured early in the fourth quarter last week. He played out wide five snaps and in the box seven snaps. He was thrown at once, and gave up one reception for 12 yards. He also jumped on a Deebo Samuel fumble forced by Trey Flowers in the fourth quarter that helped Detroit's comeback attempt.
"Look, he's been working hard and he quietly has really improved," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said of Melifonwu this week. "He's another guy from spring that has just quietly had a good spring and a good camp. So, yeah, he's probably, there's a good chance he's the next guy up, but, look, we've got two other young guys, too, in Bobby Price and Jerry Jacobs.
"So, we're going to put the best combination out there and see where we go. But, listen, it's next man up and we said that from day one. It doesn't matter who's in there, all that matters is who's in there, does what they're asked to do and do it the very best that they can do it."
The Lions will get into the game plan for this week on Thursday, but guys have said they've already begun watching film on the Packers. One benefit a young player like Melifonwu might have this week is the fact that this Lions defense has a lot of similar concepts to the Saints' defense that bottled up Rodgers and the Packers' offense really well last week. Detroit defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn came over from the Saints this offseason.
Still, Melifonwu knows the tough task that lies ahead of him this week.
"I'm just doing what I can to prepare," he said. "We all are. Obviously, they are a really good offense. (Rodgers) is going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback. Vertical pass game, they know how to spread the ball out, there's a lot of challenges to be honest."
Melifonwu has terrific size and athletic traits at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He was a Day 2 draft pick, and both his coaches and teammates have confidence he can come in and make plays.
"We brought him in for a reason," veteran cornerback Amani Oruwariye said Wednesday of Melifonwu. "He resembles guys like me and Jeff, maybe a little less experience, obviously, but he's being coached the same way and being asked to do the same things we're doing so we expect him to bring the same results."
Melifonwu played 50 coverage snaps in the preseason and was targeted four times, allowing two receptions for 24 yards.
Rodgers, Davante Adams and the rest of the Packers' offensive weapons are expected to test the rookie, just like they did with Okudah last year when he made his first start as a rookie against the Packers. That's just what veterans do to rookies.
Green Bay has a lot to prove after last week. So do these young Detroit cornerbacks with an opportunity to step up in the bright lights of primetime and show they can be the next man up and earn themselves a steady role moving forward.