Detroit Lions: Improving special teams is still a priority

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 18: Charles Washington #45 of the Detroit Lions leaves the field after the Lions defeated the Panthers 20-19 at Ford Field on November 18, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 18: Charles Washington #45 of the Detroit Lions leaves the field after the Lions defeated the Panthers 20-19 at Ford Field on November 18, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Once considered to be a strength for the team, the Detroit Lions‘ special teams unit has unimpressed throughout the 2018 season. Now, midseason, the team has shown a commitment to fixing the problems on special teams.

The 2018 season has been riddled with penalties and a lack of big plays for the Detroit Lions‘ special teams unit, but changes to the coaching staff and roster have shown their commitment to improving the team.

There are many roles on special teams that need to be addressed. Every NFL team needs to make sure that they have players who can make tackles on kick and punt returns, returners who can make big plays and give the offense good field position to work with, big bodies to block for field goals when the offense can’t capitalize, and guys who can defend against opposing kickers and try to block kicks.

The last few spots on the 53-man roster are usually reserved for players who can contribute on special teams. This season, safety Charles Washington has once again solidified his role as the Lions’ top gunner on special teams, leading the unit with 6 special teams tackles.

Safety Miles Killebrew has also found his role in Detroit as a special teams standout. Once a rising star on defense, the former fourth-round pick has not played a defensive snap all season. Killebrew has three special teams tackles on the season and only one holding penalty against him.

Fullback Nick Bellore and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin have also been core special teams players in the 2018 season.

General manager Bob Quinn constantly churns the bottom of the roster, bringing in players who provide not only extra depth on offense or defense but also value on special teams. This season, the Lions have seen many players come and go as they continue their search for players who can contribute.

Quinn made the decision to keep six wide receivers at the beginning of the season. Receivers Brandon Powell and Bradley Marquez were kept around for their special teams’ value. Powell shined as a return man in the preseason and Marquez was supposed to bring some ability as a gunner against punt and kick returns.

Marquez was waived after the first game due to an inability to contribute on special teams. Powell has been able to hold a roster spot throughout the season but has yet to make an impact, even with All-Pro punt returner Jamal Agnew out for the season.

The Lions also claimed cornerback Dee Virgin at the beginning of the season. The former Houston Texan was expected to help out in punt and kick coverage and add depth at cornerback. Instead, the defensive back lasted one month on the active roster, playing in 42 special teams snaps and none on defense, and recording only one tackle. Virgin was later re-signed to the practice squad.

One day after the Week 9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings where the Lions committed three special teams penalties, special teams coordinator Joe Marciano was fired. Up until that point, Detroit had committed 14 special teams penalties, the third most in the NFL. They have also allowed the most yards per punt return this season and one punt return touchdown from none other than former Lions returner Andre Roberts.

The very next day, the team began making moves to bolster their special teams unit. The Lions re-signed former preseason standout and fan-favorite running back Zach Zenner and wide receiver Bruce Ellington. Zenner had been a key player on special teams for several seasons and immediately began to contribute in his return.

In the Week 11 win over the Carolina Panthers, the running back recovered an onside kick late in the fourth quarter, solidifying the team’s victory. Ellington was brought in as receiver depth after wide receiver Golden Tate was traded and has found his place as Detroit’s new return man.

Prior to the Panthers game, undrafted cornerback Mike Ford was signed from the practice squad and became a big contributor to special teams in his NFL debut. The rookie out of Southeast Missouri State University made a vital play on a Sam Martin punt, assisting safety Tavon Wilson in downing the punt at the two-yard line, leaving Carolina with poor field position.

In another roster move, former special teams standout and safety Don Carey made his return to the Lions after spending part of the season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 31-year-old defensive back played in Detroit for eight seasons and was considered to be one of the top gunners in the league during that time. His return to the team will bring leadership and a veteran presence to the young and struggling special teams unit.

dark. Next. Detroit Lions 2019 full 7-round mock draft

At this point in the season, the Detroit Lions have recorded only 39 special teams tackles along with 16 penalties, which is tied for second-most in the league. There is still a lot of work to do for this squad, but the current changes to their special teams unit has already shown their commitment to finding a solution to the problem.