Coming off of a huge victory at home last Sunday, the Detroit Lions now head to Atlanta with the hopes of having their first winning streak of the season.
Due to COVID-19, the flu, and a plethora of injuries to key players, the Lions have had to rely more on their 2021 rookie class than many expected them to. This game will be no different as several first-year players are set to take on larger roles against Atlanta.
Offensive linemen Penei Sewell, Tommy Kraemer, and Ryan McCollum
First-round pick Penei Sewell has already proven that he’s capable of holding his own against some of the league’s top pass-rushers. Luckily, he won’t be up against any of those players when he takes the field in Atlanta. The Falcons’ leading pass-rusher is Dante Fowler, who has just 4.5 sacks on the season. No other player on the team has gotten more than two sacks on opposing quarterbacks. The Lions will be relying on backup quarterback Tim Boyle, who will more than appreciate Sewell keeping a clean pocket for him on the right side of the line.
Undrafted free agent Tommy Kraemer could potentially be the Lions’ starting left guard if Jonah Jackson is unable to play. Jackson, who has been the team’s starting left guard for most of the season, is listed as questionable to play as he deals with a back injury. Kraemer has started in two games this far with mixed results. His first career game was rife with penalties and pressures given up, but he turned things around last week after taking every snap on offense in the blowout win over Arizona.
Center Ryan McCollum will likely be active as he is the only backup to Evan Brown at the moment. As long as Brown stays healthy, McCollum will only take the field for field goals and extra point attempts.
Running back Jermar Jefferson
Rookie running back Jermar Jefferson has had a very limited role on offense over the last few weeks as he has had to re-acclimate himself into practices after dealing with both illness and injury. Unfortunately, his playing time has been hindered even more by the emergence of Craig Reynolds, who has been exceeding any and all expectations at the running back position.
Jefferson should see some playing time but it will likely be in a limited capacity once again. The rookie has 97 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns so far this year.
Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown
It is very clear the the chemistry between fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown and starting quarterback Jared Goff has been found. Unfortunately, we’ll have to see how the rookie will do with Tim Boyle taking the reigns on offense.
St. Brown has four catches for 18 yards when Boyle is playing quarterback, so it’s more than likely that he’ll be a go-to option against Atlanta. He and veteran Josh Reynolds will be the starting receivers for this game and the two won’t be taking too much time off on offense.
Tight ends Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra
Despite showing some promise as a receiver earlier in the season, Brock Wright had a rough day against the Cardinals last Sunday. The rookie blocking tight end committed two penalties and failed to catch the one pass that came his way.
Luckily, fellow undrafted rookie Shane Zylstra has been activated from the practice squad once again and can take over the receiving duties at the tight end position and letting Wright revert back to his role as a blocker. Zylstra has three receptions for 34 yards on the 69 offensive snaps he’s taken thus far.
Defensive linemen Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill
One of the bigger mysteries of this season is why these two defensive rookies aren’t getting more playing time.
Onwuzurike has flashed some promise at defensive end and has 29 tackles and a sack to his name so far. The issue is that he has been on the field for less than a third of the Lions’ defensive snaps. He has been dealing with minor injuries for a majority of the year, so maybe the coaching staff is just trying to ensure the rookie is healthy for a bigger role next season.
Alim McNeill has began to unseat John Penisini as Detroit’s starting nose tackle but the two are still essentially sharing their reps. McNeill has all the physical traits needed to be a force against the run, but just needs a little more time to develop into that role. Expect him to put some pressure on the Falcons’ struggling interior offensive line in this matchup.
Linebackers Derrick Barnes and Tavante Beckett
The Lions have seen more successes than usual with their linebackers this season. At inside linebacker, Alex Anzalone had been looking like a great free-agent signing and Jalen Reeves-Maybin has emerged into a full-time starter. Unfortunately for Detroit, Anzalone’s season is over after suffering an injury last week and Reeves-Maybin is questionable to play.
This means that rookie linebacker Derrick Barnes will be helming the defense as the starting inside linebacker against Atlanta. Barnes showed plenty of potential throughout training camp and the preseason, but has reminded us that he is still a rookie with much to learn as his role has increased throughout the season.
His biggest struggles have been when he has had to drop into coverage, which doesn’t bode well when he’s set to face off against dual-threat running back and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
Called up from the practice squad, Tavante Beckett could see the field for the first time in his career. He’ll be a reserve inside linebacker in case any more injuries afflict that position group.
Defensive backs Ifeatu Melifonwu, AJ Parker, Mark Gilbert, and Brady Breeze
No position group on this team has had more changes to personnel than the defensive backs. Down their top three cornerbacks, the Lions will now rely on Ifeatu Melifonwu to start opposite of safety-turned-cornerback Will Harris.
Melifonwu has a string of bad luck to begin his career. The rookie was placed on injured reserve after sustaining an injury in week 2. When he was activated from injured reserve, he immediately was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list and missed even more time. He’ll have a lot of rust to shake off, but this will also be a great opportunity to evaluate the young cornerback.
AJ Parker returned from injured reserve and is back to being the Lions’ starting nickel defender. The undrafted rookie has been exceptional in that role and should have an easy time against the Falcons, whose receiving corps has been depleted due to injuries.
Mark Gilbert has also just been activated from Reserve/COVID-19 and should be the next man up at cornerback if Melifonwu or Harris get hurt. Gilbert showed plenty of promise against Pittsburgh earlier this season when he forced a fumble on Diontae Johnson. If it comes to it, he’ll be a reliable replacement in the secondary.
Brady Breeze saw some meaningful reps on defense last week after being claimed off of waivers from Tennessee. As a reserve free safety, he likely won’t be playing much in this game with Tracy Walker back in the lineup. Expect Breeze to be a core special teamer if he’s active at all.
Kicker Riley Patterson
The Detroit Lions found a diamond in the rough by signing Patterson off of New England’s practice squad. After having gone through six kickers over the course of training camp, preseason, and regular season, they have finally found a reliable option in this undrafted rookie.
Patterson has yet to miss a kick on his fifteen total field goal and extra point attempts. Hopefully he finds more of the same successes against Atlanta.