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).

Lions place Matthew Stafford on injured reserve

Chris McCosky / The Detroit News

Allen Park— There was hope in his heart right up until the moment he was told that his season was over. But in his head, and certainly in his ailing right shoulder, he knew it was over a couple of weeks ago.

The Lions, needing a roster spot because of the uncertain health status of safety Louis Delmas, placed quarterback Matthew Stafford on injured reserve Friday.


“I would have loved for it to have felt better and have a chance to come back and play, but with the roster situation, I completely understand,” said Stafford, who has twice separated his right shoulder this season, the second time Nov. 7 against the Jets. “I am disappointed it had to end like this but it’s part of the business.”

Delmas, still feeling post-concussion symptoms from last Sunday, hasn’t practiced all week and is doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. Safety Randy Phillips was signed off the practice squad and will be in uniform.

“We were hoping Matt would’ve been able to come back; his rehab was going good,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “But when he threw a couple of weeks ago, he wasn’t at the point where he could keep throwing. We were waiting for that time to come, and when it passed this week it was obvious he wasn’t going to play this week and his chances for next week were slim.”

Stafford said doctors have assured him the rehab process is going well and surgery will not be required. He said he expects to be at full health when the Lions begin off-season training in March.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I threw (two weeks ago) and it just didn’t react great,” he said. “It was a little bit sorer than I had hoped. I talked to the doctors and I don’t need surgery; it just takes time. You do it twice (the injury) in a season and it’s going to take time.”

Stafford, 22, now has finished his first two professional seasons on IR. His rookie season was ended after 10 games because of left shoulder and knee injuries. He played in three games this season, finishing only one, separating his right shoulder in the opener in Chicago and then again against the Jets.

He has started 13 games and finished only eight in two seasons. Still, he won the only game he finished this year (vs. Washington) and the Lions were leading in the other two when he got hurt. He completed 59.4 percent of passes this season, with six touchdowns and an interception.

“The administrative detail of putting him on IR has nothing to do with his long-term prospects,” Schwartz said. “We wanted him to come back and play if he passed all the various criteria that we set up, but it never got to that point.

“It does nothing to take away what his long-term prospects are as far as leading this team next year and into the future. We don’t expect any kind of carry-over. This is a setback for this year. It doesn’t change anything for 2011 and beyond.”

Stafford said he didn’t consider this a lost season.

“I think I learned a lot this year, even though it was different than the way I wanted to learn it,” he said. “Mentally, I was in every meeting. I’ve been at every practice and every game. I took a lot away from this year in terms of learning what it takes to win. It was just not on the field, but off the field.”

The hardest part, Stafford said, was not being able to play on Sundays.

“I am not disappointed in the fact that I didn’t get to go out and throw a bunch of touchdowns and no picks,” he said. “I’m disappointed I didn’t get to be out there on Sunday with the guys. That’s the best part of being in this profession. You work all week and you practice, but playing in front of the fans and being out there with the guys, that’s what I miss most.”

The Lions spent this week readying two quarterbacks to start against the Dolphins, but it looks like Shaun Hill will get the nod.

Hill, four weeks after breaking a knuckle on his right index finger, took first-team reps during the early portion of practice both Wednesday and Friday.

Drew Stanton, who has a separated left shoulder, took first-team reps Thursday.

The Lions have divided the reps between them this week, obviously, because with the injuries, both are one hit away from being knocked out of the game.