How Detroit Lions will make up for Jeff Okudah’s loss in young secondary

Detroit Free Press

When the Detroit Lions face reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers next Monday night, they likely will start rookies at two of their three cornerback positions.

Third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu is in line to take over for Jeff Okudah after Okudah ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left leg in last week’s 41-33 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. 

The Lions placed Okudah on injured reserve Monday.

“He’s been working hard and he quietly has really improved,” Campbell said of Melifonwu. “He’s another guy from spring, has just quietly had a good spring and a good camp. And so yeah, he’s probably — there’s a good chance he’s the next guy up, but look, we’ve got two other young guys, too, Bobby Price and (Jerry) Jacobs, so we’re going to put the best combination out there and see where we go.”

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Melifonwu played 12 defensive snaps against the 49ers, most of them coming after Okudah left the game with about 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter.

A third-round pick out of Syracuse, Melifonwu played both outside and inside cornerback this summer and is one of three rookies in a young Lions secondary that will be tested by the Packers’ prolific passing game.

A.J. Parker, an undrafted rookie out of Kansas State, starts at slot cornerback for the Lions. Jacobs, an undrafted rookie out of Arkansas, and Price, in his second NFL season (but first at cornerback after converting from safety this summer), played exclusively on special teams against the 49ers.

Campbell said the Lions will add a cornerback this week — veteran Nickell Robey-Coleman is on the practice squad — but are comfortable using their current roster to form their playing group.

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“The guys that are still here (from training camp) are the guys that we like,” he said. “The only way they’re going to get better is if they play.”

Rodgers and the Packers will present a unique challenge for Melifonwu and the rest of the Lions’ secondary.

Rodgers is a three-time MVP who led the NFL in completion percentage (70.7%), quarterback rating (121.5) and passing touchdowns (48) last season, but is coming off one of the worst games of his career. He threw two interceptions and completed barely half his passes in a 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

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Last year, when Okudah made his first career start against the Packers, Rodgers was aggressive in going after the young cornerback early, completing six passes (in nine attempts) against Okudah for 96 yards.

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn called Melifonwu “a developmental guy” this summer, but said Melifonwu’s size — he is listed at 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds — allows him to be “a matchup piece” against opposing offenses.

“Thing is he’s smart, too,” Glenn said. “Man, you can play this guy in a lot of different spots. Nickel, dime, hell, he can play safety. But man, we want to make sure that we take advantage of what he is now and not try to put him in too many spots, but spots that we know he can excel.”

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The Lions have the option of matching their new No. 1 cornerback, Amani Oruwariye, against Packers No. 1 receiver Davante Adams, though Oruwariye has played primarily right cornerback throughout his career.

As for Okudah, Campbell said his focus should be on surgery, rehab and being the best player he can in 2022.

“Listen, it’s next man up,” Campbell said. “We said that from Day 1, it doesn’t matter who’s in there, all that matters is who’s in there does what they’re asked to do and do it the very best that they can do it.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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