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
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).