Allen Park — Three months into his first NFL season and Detroit Lions rookie linebacker Derrick Barnes has yet to play more than half of the team’s defensive snaps in a single game.
Barnes has come close, within a snap or two multiple occasions, including last Sunday against Minnesota, but he remains on the backside of a rotation. Normally, it’s veteran Jalen Reeves-Maybin playing the larger portion of the timeshare, but he missed the past game with a shoulder injury and was replaced by special teams standout Josh Woods.
A midseason acquisition off Chicago’s practice squad, Wood out-snapped Barnes 43-to-37, despite previously playing just four defensive snaps in his first nine games with the Lions.
“Bringing Josh Woods in, he deserves a chance to play, too,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “You look at what he’s doing on special teams. He comes in in the middle of the season and he’s our top special team player. So why not give him a chance on defense too? Regardless of who we got, if you show you can help us at all on defense, you’re going to get a chance to play. We’re not going to just let this player sit on the sideline, not give him a chance to play just because Derrick was a draft pick. You earn your keep around here.”
To be clear, Barnes isn’t in the dog house. The Lions are simply taking a measured approach to his development. In the past, Glenn has noted that much of what the rookie is being asked to do in Detroit’s scheme is still new to the player, given Barnes spent much of his time in college playing along the line of scrimmage.
Plus, against the Vikings, Barnes acknowledged he had an expanded role, playing in more snaps in nickel packages that would have normally have gone to Reeves-Maybin.
That said, do the Lions even view Barnes as a three-down linebacker in the future? Glenn declined to say.
“I expect Derrick to be a really good player for us,” Glenn said. “Whatever capacity that is, he’s going to be a good player for us.”
With the Lions heading to Denver this week, and Reeves-Maybin expected to miss a second game, the linebacker rotation will be something to watch. Glenn even suggested there will be times when Alex Anzalone will come out of the game. That’s unusual since he’s missed just four snaps all season, all coming during a short stretch in the fourth quarter against the Rams in Week 7, after he suffered a minor injury.
“That’s the good thing about all three of them, they can play any spot,” Glenn said. “That’s why we have that rotation with those guys. You’ll see Woods and Barnes in a rotation this week, with them two guys playing with Alex out. That’s just how we rotate those guys. Plus, being in Denver, we all know the altitude and all that different stuff, we just got to make sure we’re on point. You might see (Anthony) Pittman out there getting an opportunity because he’s been doing well for us, also.”
Striving for perfection
Continuing a season-long trend, the Lions got a strong performance out of their special teams in last Sunday’s victory, fueled by the excellent punting of Pro Bowler Jack Fox and rookie kicker Riley Patterson making all three of his field-goal attempts, which also happened to be the first of his career.
But reflecting the lofty standards instilled in him by his father, a Navy fighter pilot, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp came out of the game more fixated on a mistake than the unit’s successes.
“I was so disappointed on the one kickoff,” Fipp said, referencing a 44-yard kickoff return the Lions surrendered to Kene Nwangwu, a rookie running back who has brought back two of his first eight attempts for touchdowns entering the day.
“That’s the life we live,” Fipp said. “Ultimately, you’re trying to play a perfect game and we had a play that slipped away from us. We knew it was a good match, 26 (Nwangu) is a good player. God, we wish we could cover it one more time. I know we’d get it right. But we don’t get that, so yeah, I needed to do a better job on that one.”
Keeping ’em off balance
On one snap against the Vikings, the Lions utilized an unique offensive formation, lining up tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell side-by-side on the right side, with Sewell at right tackle and Decker in the tight end position.
On the opposite side, tight end T.J. Hockenson temporarily served as the left tackle. The Lions ran the ball with Jamaal Williams on the first-down play, gaining 4 yards.
“We’ve run it four or five times this year, and we’ve been very successful in unbalanced (sets),” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. “It can create matchup advantages, and at the same time, just cause some confusion and slow the defense down. You’d be surprised how many times a defense can’t get lined up to an unbalanced set. Every now and then you can get a touchdown with it.”
This is the first time the Lions have shifted Decker to the right side since his return. Early in the season, the team did it four times with Sewell, but never more than once per game.
Still taking precautions with the team’s recent flu outbreak, the Lions had their offensive and defensive linemen practice at a separate time from the rest of the roster.
In the brief window open to the media, quarterback Jared Goff was back practicing after being told to stay home an extra day on Wednesday. He had contracted the flu over the weekend.
Among those not practicing were Hockenson (hand), running backs D’Andre Swift (shoulder) and Jermar Jefferson, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) and cornerback Bobby Price (shoulder). Hockenson’s left hand and thumb were heavily bandaged.
Outside of Goff, the team’s flu spread was largely limited to the team’s trenches, with defensive linemen John Penisini, Michael Brockers and Nick Williams and offensive linemen Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Jonah Jackson missing Wednesday’s practice due to illness. Their statuses for Thursday will be updated in the afternoon’s practice report.