Exciting rookie return man Jamal Agnew returned to practice as a full participant this week for the Detroit Lions after missing the last three games with a knee injury.
The Lions have certainly missed Agnew's big-play potential in the return game the last three weeks.
Agnew leads the NFL in punt return average (16.8) and touchdowns (2). In the last three games without him, Detroit’s punt return average has been half of Agnew’s average, with TJ Jones and Golden Tate combining for seven returns for a total of 60 yards (8.6 average).
“He’s proven to be a guy that can make some things happen,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said of Agnew on Wednesday. “Flip the field for you, those kinds of things. He obviously gets back in action this week, hopefully if things go well the rest of this week, but he is a great help to us.”
Saturday’s game at Ford Field vs. Chicago will actually feature the top two rookie punt returners in the league. Chicago has a pretty darn good one of their own with Tarik Cohen, who is averaging 9.6 yards per return, which includes an amazing 61-yard touchdown a couple weeks back vs. San Francisco.
Cohen has become a weapon both on special teams and offense for the Bears. In 13 games he has rushed for 347 yards with two touchdowns, and has caught 41 passes for 316 yards with one touchdown. On special teams he has returned 20 kickoffs for 454 yards and 24 punts for 230 yards.
The Lions were getting Agnew involved on the offensive side of things the month leading up to his knee injury. He played 10 snaps on offense with a couple runs for nine yards and a 12-yard catch, along with being a decoy for some bigger gains by teammates.
On Saturday, kickoffs and punts are must-see television with these two back returning.
Don’t be surprised at all if one of these dynamic rookies makes a play Saturday that somehow determines the outcome for their team.
Most of us thought when Tavon Wilson went down with a shoulder injury that ended his season a few weeks back, second-year safety Miles Killebrew would step into the starting lineup.
Instead, the Lions moved nickel cornerback Quandre Diggs to strong safety, a move that’s looked like a good one the last couple weeks. Diggs is experienced and versatile, and has been a playmaker in that role, especially last week, recording his first career interception and forcing a fumble in Detroit’s 24-21 win in Tampa Bay.
But where does that leave Killebrew?
He played just seven snaps in Baltimore Week 13 and a season-low three snaps last week against the Buccaneers.
“Yeah, I think there’s always kind of up and down in the season,” Caldwell said of Killebrew Tuesday. “It doesn’t take away from what he can do for us. We still use him in different packages and things of that nature. So, it’s not like he’s not being utilized. And I still think he’s still developing.”
But the Lions obviously feel at this point that playing Diggs at strong safety gives them the best chance to win. If Diggs continues to play well, who knows, his move could be permanent.
The Lions have used Killebrew as a hybrid linebacker in packages this season, but Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said he hasn’t considered moving Killebrew to linebacker full time.
“The one thing I found out in this league, when you’re a role player, a rookie or young guy, and you have part-time responsibilities, sometimes you think that translates and you can just throw a guy in immediately and now he can take on a full 50, 60, 70 plays," Austin said. "What you find out a lot of times, that’s not it, it’s kind of a graduated growth.
“I think that’s where we are with (Killebrew). We’re still growing him. I think, I’m hoping, that as we go he’ll be able to start handling 50- and 60-play games and being able to be an every-down player. That’s what we want and we’re still growing him.”
Austin said he still has a lot of faith in Killebrew, and will continue to groom him correctly, so Killebrew doesn’t lose any confidence along the way.
“There’s nothing worse than a young guy gets his confidence crushed and he’s not very good,” Austin said. “That’s what we don’t want to do.”
BREAKING: QUARTERBACKS LIKE TO THROW
Quarterback Matthew Stafford is on pace to throw the fewest number of passes in a season since 2010. Part of that is because the Lions continue to try and stay somewhat balanced with their run game, despite the fact they rank 32nd running the football this season.
However, the Lions threw the ball 44 times last Sunday in Tampa Bay, and ran it just 18 times.
Realistically needing to win the final three games to keep their playoff hopes alive, putting the ball in the hands of their best player on offense, and having him determine their fate, seems like a sound strategy the rest of the way.
Detroit can't abandon the run altogether, but if the passing game is humming along as good as it was last week, why not? It's crunch time, so whatever it takes.
“I mean that’s part of our job description is throwing the ball,” Stafford said this week. “A lot of other stuff goes into it as well, but being successful throwing the ball is a big part of it, and I’m happy to do it.
“I love it. I love throwing the ball. I mean, I’m quarterback, right? That’s what I’m supposed to do.”