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How the Detroit Lions plan on replacing Alim McNeill

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell talked about how the team will respond to Alim McNeill going on IR, and the players who now have the opportunity to shine.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Wednesday, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell spoke about the big news from Tuesday: defensive tackle Alim McNeill has been placed on injured reserve after reportedly spraining his knee against the New Orleans Saints.

“Losing Mac for these four weeks is going to be tough,” Campbell said. “He’s been a reliable, steady, productive player for us. He’s really come into his own this year. He’s just grown every year, but this year, he was big. He was a force for us. Guys got a lot of respect for him, so that hurts. But at the same token, this train moves on.”

The Lions don’t exactly have a one-for-one replacement for McNeill. The third-year defensive tackle has been unique in his ability to both stop the run (77.9 run defense PFF grade—5th among all DTs) and provide pressure on the quarterback (33 pressures, 21st among DTs).

That said, there are a lot of players on the roster who now have an opportunity to make an impact with the team despite spending much of the season on the bench. Players like third-round rookie Brodric Martin (one game played, 11 snaps), 2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike (six games, 73 snaps), and Isaiah Buggs (six games, 141 snaps)

“These guys are going to get an opportunity to prove their worth here,” Campbell said.

Perhaps the closest to McNeill’s skillset is that of Onwuzurike, who was originally drafted to provide some of that interior pass rush after showing off some fast, athletic traits in college—producing 7.0 sacks and 16.0 tackles for loss during his time there. Unfortunately, Onwuzurike has spent most of his professional career battling a debilitating back injury that caused him to miss all of 2022.

For Campbell, the reason Onwuzurike hasn’t made the field consistently this year is both because of how they manage their gameday roster and the lack of time on task for the 25-year-old.

“Some of these come down to the position themselves,” Campbell said. “Between the bigs in the middle to OLB to hybrids. (John) Cominsky’s kind of a hybrid, Romeo (Okwara) is a little bit in that nature. So, we can’t overload in one position or another. So he’s been the odd guy out.

“But he works his rear off, and it’s really time on task. The more reps he gets, the better he’s going to be. He continues to grow. We’re not disappointed with him. We’re excited that he’s healthy and he’s able to work. And he is growing, he’s getting better.”

This could be another opportunity for Buggs, too. After being an integral part of the team’s defensive plan against the run last season, Buggs was passed by Benito Jones and Quinton Bohanna—who has been elevated from the practice squad the last three games—on the depth chart this year. Buggs has been a gameday inactive in four out of the past five games—missing only once due to injury/illness.

So what does he have to do to get back on the field this week?

“Just be reliable. Reliable, dependable, do your job. Be consistent,” Campbell said.

The Lions also added 36-year-old veteran Tyson Alualu. Built in the same vein as McNeill (6-foot-3, 304 pounds), Alualu is capable of both run defense and pass rush (25.0 career sacks). But much like a couple other recent veteran additions (Bruce Irvin, Michael Schofield), Campbell expects to build up his football shape for a little bit before putting him on the field on Sundays.

“He’s a guy who brings the floor (up). He brings stability,” Campbell said. “So you kinda know what you’re going to get, exactly what you’re going to get, and that brings us comfort. He’s got a little versatility to him, and there again, he’s an addition to the roster. So once we get him to where we feel like, ‘Alright he’s in game shape,’ or he’s ready to do that, then we’ll make a decision. Let’s see if he can help us.”

Despite McNeill being such an integral part of their overall defense, Campbell said that other than some specific situational moments, they do not plan on changing their overall identity without him.

“There will be some things that come up in a few situations, but I don’t think as a whole we’ll need to change what we do. We’ll still be able to function and live in the world we lived in.”

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