Happy Birthday, C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
The veteran defensive back not only turned 26-years-old on Wednesday, but he also returned to the Lions practice field for the first time in just over three months.
Gardner-Johnson hasn't practiced or played since he gutted his way through a torn pectoral muscle to finish a Week 2 loss vs. Seattle on Sept. 17.
He was a limited participant in practice Wednesday, but it was a good first step in getting him back on the field on gamedays.
"Back in effect," Gardner-Johnson said Wednesday after practice. "I'm just glad to be back in my element. I wasn't myself being away from ball. Being around the guys and seeing them win has been keeping me up."
Players can practice for up to three weeks before they must be activated from IR to the 53-man roster or returned to injured reserve for the rest of the season.
Gardner-Johnson said he's in shape and doesn't think it will be long before he can jump back in and play but didn't know exactly when that would be. He said the last three months have been lonely and dark, and he's just happy to be back around the game and his teammates again.
In the two games he played for Detroit before landing on IR he had 13 tackles and two passes defended. He came to Detroit after spending the 2022 season with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he appeared in 12 games (12 starts) and had 67 tackles (61 solo), eight passes defended, six interceptions, five tackles for loss and one sack. His six interceptions tied for the NFL lead.
"He's one of the X-Men," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said of Gardner-Johnson's return. "He's got these mutant genes, because he has healed extremely quickly. And it is, he's gotten the strength back, it is secure, and so yeah, he's going to be ready to go here pretty soon."
The Lions enter Sunday's game in Minnesota ranked 18th against the pass. Their 15 takeaways rank just 24th. With a win Sunday in Minneapolis, the Lions would clinch their first division title since 1993. It's yet to be determined if Gardner-Johnson will be ready by Sunday, but he's back practicing and getting close which is great news for the Lions' defense down the stretch.
The scenarios for the Lions to win the NFC North or earn a playoff spot are much less complicated heading into Week 16. If the Lions win, they are the NFC North champions and will host at least one playoff game at Ford Field.
Detroit can also earn a playoff spot with a Los Angeles Rams or Seattle loss. The Rams host New Orleans (7-7) Thursday night. Seattle travels to Tennessee to take on the 5-9 Titans.
The Lions face a Minnesota defense Sunday that leads the NFL with a blitz percentage of 47.7 percent. New Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores loves to come after opponents with pressure, and Detroit will have to be ready for that. Ten different players have recorded a sack for the Vikings.
Danielle Hunter's 15.5 sacks on the season are a half sack behind Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt for the league lead. He has at least one sack in 11 of Minnesota's 14 games this season.
The difficult part about facing Flores and the Vikings is they are just as likely to drop eight in coverage as they are to blitz, which makes them difficult to scheme against.
"They create a lot of negative plays," Lions offensive line coach Hank Fraley said Wednesday. "In the run game you see it, in the pass game. They definitely have been playing well. Their defense has been flying around. It's definitely a great challenge for us."
Campbell said this is the kind of week where the game plan offensively might not be completed until gameday because of all the moving parts, adjustments that will be made and the unique nature of the Vikings' defensive scheme.
In last week's win over Denver, linebacker Alex Anzalone finished with 12 tackles (seven solo), two quarterback hits, one tackle for loss and one pass defended. The 12 tackles give him 108 on the year and gives him his second straight 100-tackle season. He is the first Lions player to post 100-plus tackle seasons in back-to-back years since Tahir Whitehead in 2016-17.
Anzalone also has 3.0 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, six tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and six passes defended. He does it all for this defense.
- The Vikings are one of two teams in the NFL this season to have four players with at least 40 receptions, 435 receiving yards and two touchdowns (San Francisco). Wide receiver Jordan Addison, tight end T.J. Hockenson, wide receiver Justin Jefferson and wide receiver K.J. Osborn have each reached those totals.
- Jahmyr Gibbs ranks second among rookies in rush yards (792), third in scrimmage yards (1,088) and tied for fourth in scrimmage touchdowns (8). He has at least 50-plus scrimmage yards in each of his first 12 career games.