Before Detroit’s game against Carolina, Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead told reporters Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, a top-10 pick by the Panthers back in May, reminded him a lot of Lions second-year, undrafted receiver Jace Billingsley.
That's pretty high praise thrown Billingsley’s way by the veteran linebacker.
“I’ll take it,” Billingsley said this week, when told of Whitehead’s comment a few week’s back.
It turns out Billingsley played the McCaffrey role while on the practice squad that whole week leading up to the Carolina game. He obviously impressed Whitehead in practice that week, but it seems he’s impressed some other important decision makers over the last seven weeks. The Lions activated Billingsley from the practice squad to the active roster earlier this week.
The Lions are dealing with injuries at receiver to Golden Tate (shoulder) and Kenny Golladay (hamstring), and could be without one or both against Pittsburgh Sunday night.
Billingsley’s promotion is mostly a reaction to those injuries, but Lions head coach Jim Caldwell did say Friday there were some exciting elements to Billingsley’s game.
“He’s getting better, and then a situation where we had a couple guys banged up as well,” Caldwell said. “That’s the truth about it, and we’re just putting ourselves in position to make certain we have answers.
“But he’s done very well. He’s improving daily, hardworking guy, and he’s got some exciting elements about his game.”
It’s yet to be determined if Billingsley will be on the active 46-man roster Sunday night.
“The guy works unbelievably hard,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said of Billingsley. “It’s a cliché that we say all the time but I mean this guy is through the roof work ethic. He can work with anybody. Whether it’s lifting, conditioning, mental side of the game, he goes about his business the right way. Works really hard.
“He’s getting a lot better. I think he’s sort transitioned from his college career a little bit of a running back to a receiver transition. He’s getting really more comfortable playing receiver, and I think bright days are ahead for Jace.”
Billingsley was activated from the practice squad to the active roster Week 17 last year, but he wasn’t active on gameday for Detroit’s Week 17 matchup vs. Green Bay, or for Detroit’s playoff loss in Seattle the following week.
“It’s definitely a bigger opportunity to get out there and prove myself,” Billingsley said. “But at the same time, no matter what, it’s still week to week, one day at a time. You never know what can happen in this league. You have to attack one day at a time and see what happens.”
Billingsley’s been forced to prove himself time and time again over his football career. Why should now be any different?
The small-school running back turned receiver went undrafted, and has played the majority of his professional career on the practice squad. Billingsley is hopeful the opportunity will soon come where he gets to prove himself once again, this time on gameday.
“I’ve been doubted a lot of times throughout my life,” he said. “I always look forward to being the underdog and I feel like that’s when I perform my best anyways. So, I’m just going to try and continue to do so.”
Cooter spent some of his bye week diving into the game film of Detroit’s first six games in an attempt to find more consistency on offense. The Lions currently have the league’s 26th-ranked offense. They are 19th in passing and 26th running the football.
Cooter said there were elements to his offense that didn’t work through the first month and half of the season that they have put on the shelf.
Receiver Golden Tate said they’ve studied some of the routes and splits that worked and didn’t work, and did some tweaking in that regard.
“It’s good to have time to sort of spend diving deep on what we’ve done this year, what we’ve done well, what we need to do better, and hopefully improve those things and maybe throw away some of the stuff we don’t do as well,” Cooter said.
Cooter seemed pretty confident some of the changes he made will have an immediate effect on the field.
“I don’t know all the stats and stuff, but we have potential to be a whole lot better than we are right now,” he said. “Yeah, I see us being a much bigger part of our team winning ball games as we move forward.
“We’re not as successful offensively helping our team win as I and we would like us to be at this moment, and I do see us improving, and really becoming a big factor in that thing.”
Sunday will be a good test of that against Pittsburgh’s third-ranked scoring defense and second-ranked defense overall.
Detroit's captains for Sunday’s game vs. Pittsburgh are: Quarterback Matthew Stafford (offense), safety Glover Quin (defense) and long snapper Don Muhlbach (special teams).