Luckily, the ankle injury Lions defensive back Brian Branch suffered Thursday night against the Green Bay Packers doesn't appear to be serious. He was able to return to the game fairly quickly, and x-rays were negative.
Having extra days between games will help Branch be good to go for Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers. But his exit, along with some other injuries in the Lions' secondary (C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Kerby Joseph) exposed a potential issue.
Head coach Dan Campbell has openly lauded what Will Harris brings to the table as a trusted, reliable veteran. But last offseason's remodeling of the Lions' secondary rightfully pushed him down the depth.
The play should not have counted on Thursday night, as the third quarter game clock had clearly expired before the snap. But Harris apparently let his guard down, and he was beaten by Packers' wide receiver Jayden Reed for a 44-yard completion. Green Bay would score a touchdown two plays later, and if they had made the two-point conversion a 27-3 halftime lead would have dissolved to a one-score lead.
It's fair to wonder if Branch would have been held out as a precaution otherwise. But he got his ankle taped up heavily, and came back into the game after Harris allowed the deep completion.
Simply put, leaving aside what he brings to the table intangibly, Harris is not a very good player. He is sheerly overmatched physically in coverage, and when he enters a game opposing offenses target him with success.
A solution to the Lions' Will Harris problem is hiding in plain sight
Ideally moving forward, Harris will not play anything close to the 14 defensive snaps he played on Thursday night (49.3 PFF grade for the game). Alas, he played just four defensive snaps in the first three games of the season. But if he has to play more than a stray snap or two, he's an active detriment to the effectiveness of the Lions' pass defense.
Bleacher Report's NFL staff, for what it's worth, cited the secondary as the Lions weakness heading into this week. A free agent target who could help out was also offered up.
"Add Now: S P.J. Williams
C.J. Gardner-Johnson hitting injured reserve with a torn pec is a devastating injury for Detroit's secondary, which was already a little shaky to begin with. While Dan Campbell said there's a chance Gardner-Johnson returns this season, the team could use someone to at least fill out the depth chart while the ball hawk is out.
Even if Tracy Walker III stays as the Lions' starting free safety, adding Williams would give them a veteran to turn to in an emergency or if Walker III doesn't play well. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the former Saint is only two years removed from coming down with three interceptions, which is a big reason the organization brought Gardner-Johnson in during the offseason."
The Tracy Walker not playing well thing is not tracking that way, and Kerby Joseph may be back in Week 5. But Williams spent his first five seasons with the New Orleans Saints with Aaron Glenn as his position coach, and it's worth noting what the Lions' defensive coordinator said about him-coincidentally while trying to prop up Harris.
"Will Harris has a lot of value, as far as a player just in general, because he’s played every position in the back end that you can imagine. I had a guy like this named P.J. Williams with the Saints, and he was just like Will. Actually, he wasn’t as good of an athlete as Will, but the one thing that he was, he was very smart," "At the drop of a hat, we can put him in that position that he didn’t get a lot of reps in that week. And, you see Will doing the same thing."
Williams had a down year for the Saints last year and he's now 30 years old, which explains why he's still a free agent basically a month into the season. But Glenn has lauded his versatility, and for what it's worth named him one of his favorite players. Assuming he's healthy, the Lions could use someone like Williams as an extra defensive back.
The Lions probably aren't going to cut Harris, because Campbell likes him too much. But on the other hand, a meritocracy leaves the door open for a move. And it just happens that a nice-looking fit is available.