Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin isn't afraid to use every asset he has at his disposal on defense. We saw it last year with then rookie safety Miles Killebrew. Austin used him in a heavy safety dime package, and Killebrew rewarded Austin by making some key plays on the way to the playoffs.
We are seeing it again this year with rookie cornerback Teez Tabor, whose size and smarts have been tapped by Austin for some inside play in the dime.
The ability of those players to play a reserve role early in their careers helped to get their feet wet and become acclimated to the NFL. In the case of Killebrew, the Lions are hoping the last year and a half of him getting quality reps in a reserve role has prepared him to step in and start at strong safety the rest of the season.
Detroit lost starter Tavon Wilson for the year after he suffered a shoulder injury on Thanksgiving. The Lions placed Wilson on season-ending IR.
That means Killebrew is the next man up.
"He (Austin) plugs in guys all across the board," Killebrew said of his ability to play early in his career. "Like you saw last year, I was playing safety and he rolled me down in the box and I was playing linebacker. That's just something he does. He likes his guys to be ready to play anywhere he needs them."
Killebrew played 158 snaps as a rookie, but that number has increased to 329 snaps in 11 games this season. He started Week 3 against the Falcons after Wilson re-aggravated a shoulder injury he first suffered in training camp. Killebrew had a career-high nine tackles playing 53 snaps in the contest.
Killebrew owns a positive grade from Pro Football Focus on the year. He has 32 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and five defended passes.
"Every week I prepare in case I need to go in for the starting role or to get more snaps and this week is the same," Killebrew said. "You have to be ready for next man up. That hasn't changed. I'm preparing just like every other week."
Wilson and starting free safety Glover Quin have built terrific chemistry in the back end of Detroit's defense the last two seasons, but Quin says he and Killebrew have been building chemistry, too. Quin likes how Killebrew is coming along in year two.
"He's gotten smarter," Quin said of Killebrew. "He's become more aware of things that are happening on the field and understanding things that are going on. He's definitely progressed."
The Lions will need Killebrew to step up and play well over the next five weeks as they make their push for the playoffs.
BACK TO BALTIMORE
Tackle Rick Wagner was one of Lions GM Bob Quinn's big free-agent acquisitions this offseason.
Wagner played his first four seasons in Baltimore, and is looking forward to seeing some of his former teammates Sunday.
"It's definitely a special experience seeing old friends," Wagner said this week. "I'm still friends with some guys on the team, but once the ball is snapped, it's all football, it's all business."
Wagner is graded as the fifth best right tackle by Pro Football Focus, despite the fact he's given up six sacks. The reason for the high grading is due to the fact that the only hits Wagner's allowed on Matthew Stafford are those six sacks. Every other rep, he's kept his quarterback clean by not giving up a quarterback hit.
View photos of the Detroit Lions practice on Nov. 30, 2017.
Wagner admits, though, that he is still trying to find more consistency in his game.
"I think I've been a little up and down," he said. "I think I need to become more consistent. That's the goal of O-linemen, to be consistent and be the same guy every week. I've got a month left, at least. I think I've got some time to keep improving."
One thing Wagner has been all year is reliable. He's started all 11 games this season, despite battling injuries early on.
"Obviously, he's one of those guys that can battle through any and everything," Caldwell said. "He's got experience. Brings a toughness that you're looking for. And he's been around the block a bit.
"For him going back (to Baltimore), it'll be just like for T.J. (Lang) a couple weeks ago (going back to Green Bay), and same thing for this young man as well. Know a lot of people, probably the first time that he's had an opportunity to see them outside of the setting when he was there.
"I'm sure it'll bring back some memories for him, but all in all, I think his focus when it comes down to it will be going out there and trying to get in position to win that game, and that's the most important thing for us."
Wagner is a captain for the first time in his Lions tenure. It's no coincidence it comes this week in his return to Baltimore in a game the Lions need to win to stay on track in the NFC playoff race.
Lions captains for Sunday's game are: Wide receiver Golden Tate (offense), Wagner (offense), linebacker Tahir Whitehead (defense) and linebacker Nick Bellore (special teams).