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Amani Oruwariye was, at a minimum, the Detroit Lions‘ most durable cornerback the first seven games of the season, and arguably the team’s best, yet when it came time to play the Minnesota Vikings last week, Oruwariye was reduced to a bit role in the Lions defense.
Oruwariye played one series in the first half of the Lions’ 34-20 loss, then finished the game after Jeff Okudah left with an ankle injury early in the third quarter.
Okudah, the Lions’ first-round pick, and veteran Desmond Trufant, in his return from a hamstring injury, started at a cornerback position that midway through the season still appears to be sorting itself out.
Detroit Lions’ Matt Patricia explains move to demote Amani Oruwariye
Lions coach Matt Patricia explains decision to demote Amani Oruwariye to bench with Jeff Okudah and Desmond Trufant starting outside, Nov. 11, 2020.
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“I would say it’s a good problem to have,” Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said Tuesday. “We got three guys that are very capable to help us win, so you’ve got to try to come up with a package — packages — so they’re all out there. They obviously all can’t be out there at the same time, especially with Justin (Coleman) being back, so we try to mix it up there and make sure we got all of them out there at some point. It’s not easy. It’s what we spend all our time in here doing.”
Coleman has been and will remain the Lions’ top slot cornerback, though the team uses a three-safety nickel package on occasion for matchup reasons.
Trufant, Okudah and Oruwariye all play the outside cornerback position, and there are merits to maximizing each’s playing time.
Trufant is the most accomplished cornerback of the trio, making one Pro Bowl in seven seasons with the Atlanta Falcons before signing with the Lions as a free agent this spring. He played in parts of two of the first seven games because of hamstring injuries, but when healthy is the team’s most reliable cover man.
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Okudah, the No. 3 pick in the draft, has had a rocky season, but has shown progress of late and is the unquestioned future at the position. He has taken plenty of lumps this fall, but it’s in the best interests of the franchise to keep him on the field.
Oruwariye, a fifth-round pick in 2019, could give the Lions two young cornerbacks to build around. He had a rough third quarter against the Vikings, when he gave up a 35-yard pass to Justin Jefferson and was flagged for pass interference on the goal line, but played well enough in September and October — when Trufant, Okudah and Coleman all missed time with injuries — to think he can be a regular starter in the league.
“I think for all of our guys, and obviously even Justin Coleman when he’s out there in certain positions, we have corners that we trust and we put out in the game in certain situations,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said Wednesday. “And whether they’re going to be out there the first series or the second series or the third series, we got guys that can go play. And I think that’s important for us, to try to stay fresh as we see fit in the game plan and just (be) very open and honest with those conversations.”
Depth, of course, is good, especially at a cornerback position that has one of the highest injury rates in the NFL.
But the Lions’ defensive rotation — not just at cornerback, but most positions — reeks of the old quarterback adage: If you have multiple starters, you don’t have any at all.
While none of Trufant, Okudah or Oruwariye has been good enough this season that the Lions absolutely have to have them on the field, Undlin insisted he trusts all three and will continue to give them time.
“(We’re) fortunate that we’re in that situation where you’ve got to make tough decisions,” Undlin said. “So we’ll keep doing that going forward and see if we can find the best combination and make sure all three of those guys can help us.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.