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James Houston ‘very close’ to returning for Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions pass rusher James Houston is ‘very close’ to returning and could finally get his chance to play vs. the 49ers this week.

NFL: AUG 25 Preseason - Lions at Panthers Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been almost a full month since Detroit Lions edge rusher James Houston returned to practice after fracturing his ankle in the team’s Week 2 contest. Despite practicing for the first time on December 28 and being activated to the 53-man roster last week, Houston has yet to make a game appearance since his injury.

However, that could be coming very, very soon.

“I think he’s very close,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said on Thursday, ahead of the team’s NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Lions have been taking Houston along slowly for a couple reasons. For one, they need to make sure that he’s back in football form and is a clear improvement from their other personnel options. But they are also being precautious with his injury, as a player that relies so much on bend needs to have a structurally sound ankle.

“We want to protect that player from themselves for the most part,” Glenn explained. “Listen, I do not take injuries lightly, especially making sure we listen to the medical department to make sure we bring that player along exactly how he needs to come along. So, he’s doing a really good job in practice. You can tell he’s getting back to form to where he was. And hopefully, we’ll get a chance to put that player on the field, so he can make some plays for us.”

When Houston played for the Lions toward the end of last season, that’s exactly what he did: make plays. Despite being in a rotational role for just a seven-game span, Houston finished the 2022 season second on the team with 8.0 sacks. He also forced and recovered a fumble.

This year, the Lions have struggled to find a pass-rushing threat opposite Aidan Hutchinson. While Hutchinson finished the regular season with 11.5 sacks, no other edge defender had more than 2.0.

But this week against the 49ers provides a challenge on a few levels. For one, San Francisco has one of the best left tackles in football in Trent Williams. Additionally, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy gets the ball out fairly quickly, meaning the Lions’ recent trend of blitzing defensive backs may not work. That puts more pressure on the front four to get to Purdy quickly and disrupt his passing lanes.

“You really don’t get to him a lot because of the timing of the offense and him getting the ball out,” Glenn said. “So, the one thing I preach to the d-line, ‘Man, you’ve got to get your hands up’ because he’s a smaller-statured player. And he does a really good job of knowing exactly where he’s going to go with the ball.

“So, the rush plan, for the most part, four-man rush, you’ve got to win. They have to. Because sometimes you could send six and you would never get there and the ball’s going to get out. You just put your guys in man coverage and the ball’s going to get out. So, we have to do a really good job of really changing it up.”

Houston would give the Lions some fresh legs and someone the 49ers would have to account for. Even better for Detroit, Glenn believes Houston has expanded his game beyond the outside speed moves that defined his game last season.

“This whole offseason, he’s learned different moves other than just being able to just bend around the corner on guys,” Glenn said. “So, I think we’re all looking forward to seeing the different techniques he has as far as being a pass rusher.”

Will this be the week he gets to unleash some of those new moves? Houston has been a full practice participant on the injury report for over two full weeks now. And with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, it may be finally time to see what Houston can do.

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