John Wendling shows Lions he’s more than just a special-teamer


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Two teams over the course of four seasons tried to convince John Wendling his role in the NFL always would be limited to special teams.

Wendling bit his tongue, nodded his head and made himself one of the best special teams players in the league. His 83 special teams tackles is the most in the league the last four seasons, and he was rewarded by being named a Pro Bowl alternate last season.

All the while, though, he never stopped believing there was another dimension to his game that he wasn’t being allowed to show.

“I never accepted that I could only play special teams,” Wendling said. “My thing has always been, I can play safety in this league and I’ve always wanted to and I’ve always prepared myself to. I am going to take care of my stuff on special teams and whatever role I’m asked to do, I am going to do my best. But, yeah, I’ve kind of been waiting for the chance.”

The chance has come, albeit not the way Wendling would have wanted.

The Lions announced Thursday safety Erik Coleman, the primary backup behind starters Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey, was placed on injured reserve with a high ankle injury and will miss the rest of the season.

Both Delmas (abdomen) and Spievey (hamstring) have been battling nagging injuries, as well. Veteran Vincent Fuller, whom the Lions signed last week, missed practice Thursday with a right elbow injury and is questionable for Sunday’s game against the 49ers.

That leaves Wendling as the only healthy backup safety.

“We haven’t had a bunch of injuries but at that one position we have had some issues,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “With Erik, that’s a significant high ankle sprain. It’s been two weeks (since he injured it against Dallas) and he’s still on crutches. So that’s going to be a while.”

Out of necessity comes opportunity. Wendling finally gets to prove what he’s known in his heart all along.

“When I was in Buffalo (2007-09), it was a chip on my shoulder a little bit,” Wendling said of being labeled as a special teamer only. “I came to Detroit with the idea of, ‘Hey, I want to show them I can play safety. I can play this position. I can play in this league.’ I worked that way every day.”

Already this season, he has taken more defensive snaps than he has in four seasons combined. He made his first career start last week, filling in for Spievey, and made three tackles.

“I think the guys who have filled in have done a good job,” Schwartz said, referring to Wendling and Fuller. “They’ve tackled well and defended the deep part of the field. When you are getting poor safety play, you are giving up long runs — I’m not talking 20 yards, I am talking 60 yards — and long passes down the middle of the field. We’ve not had that.”

Funny thing: Although Wendling has had a bear of a time convincing coaches he could play defense — even after his six-tackle performance filling in for Delmas at Tampa Bay last season — none of his teammates doubted it.

“He has a lot of respect,” Delmas said. “He took no reps except on special teams and for him to come in and fill in as well as he has, that’s very impressive. But that’s just being professional. Even though you don’t get as many reps on the field, you still have to get into that playbook and if a guy falls, you have to be ready to step in right away.”

Despite the injuries, there hasn’t seemed to be any drop-off in continuity between cornerbacks and safeties, or the overall cohesion of the secondary.

“It doesn’t disrupt anything because the guys who are stepping in are performing just as well,” cornerback Chris Houston said. “There’s never any drop-off in our room. We don’t have to help or cover up any areas. Everybody in our room is professional and they know what to do.”

You might not guess it to look at him, but Wendling is an athletic marvel. He’s 29 and can still run the 40 in 4.4 seconds. His leaping ability is legendary at Wyoming, where he started for four seasons. He once cleared a 66-inch hurdle — the equivalent of leaping over teammate Stefan Logan — off a three-step approach.

Don’t believe it? Check it out on YouTube.

“This has been a long time coming for me,” Wendling said. “I’ve always prepared like I am playing every Sunday.”

49ers at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Records: San Francisco 4-1, Detroit 5-0

Series: San Francisco leads 34-26-1 (San Francisco 20-6, Dec. 27, 2009)

Line: Lions by 41/2

Did you know?: The Lions have a winning record against only one team from the NFC West — the Cardinals (31-24-5).

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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Jim Schwartz isn’t satisfied with Lions’ record: ‘We have work to do’


Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— The Lions are 4-0, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to coach Jim Schwartz.

“We still have yet to play a complete game,” he said Monday. “We still have a lot of work to do. We have talent to do it but still have a lot of work to do.”

The Lions are the first team in NFL history to win consecutive games in which it trailed by at least 20 points in each contest. The Lions erased a 27-3 second-half deficit to defeat Dallas 34-30 Sunday. Last week, the Lions trailed 20-0 and rallied to beat Minnesota 26-23 in overtime.

Both the players and Schwartz know the low-scoring first halves eventually will catch up with them if the trend continues.

“It is a huge issue,” linebacker Justin Durant said of the slow starts the last two weeks. “It’s the NFL. We can’t (win) every game like this. You can’t get down by 20 points at halftime and expect to win every week. It’s not what we’re about.”

Schwartz said reserve safety Erik Coleman will be out “a little bit” after suffering a leg injury Sunday.

Starting safety Amari Spievey wasn’t able to finish the game because of a hamstring injury and Schwartz said he’ll be “day to day.”

Durant missed Sunday’s game with a concussion but said Monday he feels much better and he expects to be on the practice field this week and play Monday night against Chicago at Ford Field.

ttwentyman@detnews.com

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Lions’ ‘gamer’ Ricardo Silva stays in thick of action, roster battle


Lions: Notebook

Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Detroit — Ricardo Silva, an undrafted rookie out of Hampton, usually stands off by himself during practice.

The rest of the defensive players are in a pack and Silva, invariably, is about 10 yards apart, by himself, often rehearsing the drops or the coverages that are being played out on the field.

It’s a bit ironic a guy so often by himself in practice is so often in the thick of the action during games.

In limited time in three games, he has two interceptions and recovered a fumble.

“He makes plays when he’s in there,” coach Jim Schwartz said.

He picked off Tom Brady late in the second quarter, which was noteworthy for two reasons. One, he picked off Tom Brady, and two, he was in the game in the second quarter.

“The defense did a good job disguising that blitz,” Schwartz said. “We had the same play on earlier but this time the quarterback read it differently. But (Silva) is a little bit of a gamer. He’s always around the ball.”

Silva may have played his way onto the 53-man roster, or onto the practice squad at the very least. After starters Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey, and veteran Erik Coleman, Silva has emerged as the fourth safety.

At least for this week, he was ahead of veteran special teams ace John Wendling and recently signed Aaron Francisco and Michael Johnson.

No excuses

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gave the Lions defense its due credit Saturday.

“They’re a good team,” he said. “They were a good team when we played them last year. It was a close game until the fourth quarter. When we made some plays in the fourth quarter we showed some resiliency, but they are a good team. They’re good on defense, they play well offensively and they’re very well coached. They’re tough.”

As for his own performance, Brady said, “From the first series on we just couldn’t get into a rhythm. It was just a bad night all around. You don’t make excuses for it. We just didn’t play the way we needed to.”

New punter

Signs are pointing to a possible change of the guard at punter. Rookie Ryan Donahue not only started the game but he also held for kicker Jason Hanson.

That’s been Nick Harris’ job the last eight seasons.

“Ryan is part of our preseason rotation,” Schwartz said. “He’s punted well and held well. It’s a different dynamic going out and doing it under the pressure of a sold-out crowd and a nationally televised game. We needed to see him in that situation.”

Donahue handled the pressure. His two punts averaged 50 yards (though on his 58-yarder he might have outkicked the coverage). His net was only 33 yards. He held for two Hanson field goals.

Harris also punted well, averaging 48 yards per boot, and a 43.5-yard net.

Extra points

Hanson has all but secured the kicking job. He booted field goals of 33 and 46 yards, plus he placed his kickoffs at the goal line, forcing the Patriots to return them. Twice the Lions stuffed the Pats inside the 20 on kickoffs. Dave Rayner missed a 48-yarder.

… Rookie receiver Titus Young saw his first game action and caught a 19-yard pass. He was pulled at halftime, though Schwartz said there was no aggravation to the sore hamstring.

… Linebacker Bobby Carpenter continues to have a strong preseason. His seven tackles led the team.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

Lions’ DeAndre Levy has bevy of options


Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Allen Park— In a perfect world, the Lions would lock in DeAndre Levy at middle linebacker and concentrate their offseason efforts toward filling the gaping holes at the two outside linebacker positions.

But, as Levy well knows, the world is anything but perfect. That’s why he is ready and willing to move back to outside linebacker.

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“Whatever happens, I am willing to play any position,” he said while cleaning out his locker back on Jan. 3. “I am always ready. I know both positions and I have no preference.”

Levy, in his second year last season, certainly gave the Lions no reason to move him out of the middle. Once he got healthy, he validated the coaching staff’s belief that he could lead the defense.

In the team’s last four games, all wins, Levy delivered a game-saving interception against Green Bay, a winning pick-six at Miami, and a pair of 11-tackle performances at Tampa Bay and against Minnesota.

So why would the Lions consider moving Levy? Because the Lions presently have no true starter at either outside linebacker position and it’s possible that a quality middle linebacker will be easier to acquire than two outside linebackers.

Certainly there’s no guarantee the Lions will be able to acquire a middle linebacker, especially one who would be an upgrade from Levy, but it is one of the scenarios the Lions would consider.

Presently, the only outside linebackers on the roster are Bobby Carpenter, Ashlee Palmer and Caleb Campbell, none of whom the Lions consider a full-time starter. General manager Martin Mayhew said that two-year starter Julian Peterson would not be back. Opening-day starter Zach Follett’s career is in jeopardy because of the neck injury he sustained in Week 6. His replacement, Landon Johnson, is an unrestricted free agent.

Although neither Mayhew nor Schwartz will discuss the team’s offseason priorities, they will certainly look hard at linebackers, both inside and outside, in the draft (April 28-30) and when the free-agency period begins, which will be whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

The consensus among draft experts, thus far, is that Von Miller of Texas AM and Akeem Ayers of UCLA are the top prospects at outside linebacker, and both are expected to be taken before the Lions pick at No. 13.

“We are going to take the best player available and you have to understand that, at that point, we’re talking about a group of players with a similar grade,” Mayhew said.

Most of the mock drafts have the Lions taking an offensive lineman at 13, validating Mayhew’s point.

But here’s another scenario that could impact Levy. What if Mayhew thinks the Lions can land a quality inside linebacker through free agency, somebody such as Tennessee’s Stephen Tulloch or Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny?

Would they not move Levy to the outside in that scenario? It’s something they would have to at least consider.

Like Schwartz said, the Lions believe that Levy is their guy at middle linebacker and they aren’t actively looking to move him. But the goal is to upgrade the entire linebacker unit, and if the best way to do that is to bring in another middle linebacker and move Levy to the outside, that’s what they will do.

Personnel dept.

The Lions have signed safety Erik Coleman , who was recently released by Atlanta.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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