MIKE O'HARA

O’HARA’S THURSDAY FOCUS: Whitehead’s performance a pleasant development

Posted Aug 28, 2014

Tahir Whitehead started and played well in last week’s victory over Jacksonville, and he can strengthen his bid to win the job with another good performance against the Bills.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Tahir Whitehead committed part of his offseason training program to bulking up so he could carry a heavier load on the Lions’ defense if he got the opportunity.

The opportunity arrived, as Whitehead has hoped it would, and he has been able to grab it and run – and tackle, defend against the pass and do everything else that is required to be strong-side linebacker effectively.

Whitehead’s performance, beginning with the offseason workouts and continuing through training camp and the preseason, has been one of the pleasant developments as the Lions close out the preseason against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium Thursday night.

Tahir WhiteheadLB Tahir Whitehead (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Whitehead started and played well in last week’s victory over Jacksonville, and he can strengthen his bid to win the job with another good performance against the Bills.

Whitehead’s status is only one subplot of the Lions-Bills Game Focus. Battles for spots on the final 53-player roster, deciding on the starting right tackle on the offensive line and how much playing time Coach Jim Caldwell will give his stars and starters are among these issues:

Whitehead’s push: He played 30 games at linebacker without a start the last two seasons after being drafted in the fifth round out of Temple in 2012. Whitehead’s primary role was on the hard-core special teams.

That role has expanded, partly because of an injury sustained by rookie Kyle Van Noy, who was drafted in the second round with the expectation of adding the play-making ability he showed at Brigham Young.

Whitehead and Ashlee Palmer, the starter on the strong side last year, are now competing for the job.

Whitehead added nine pounds, from 233 to 242, to help withstand the rigors of playing on the strong side after being a backup in the middle and on the weak side. Going up against tight ends the size of Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis, who’s 6-6 and 272 pounds, made a weight gain necessary..

“You have to add a little extra weight,” Whitehead said. “You become another defensive lineman, so to speak. You’re up on the line of scrimmage. You go against big guys. They’re a few pounds shy of being offensive tackles.”

Whitehead made his presence felt early against Jacksonville. He had four tackles, including one for a loss, on Jacksonville’s first two possessions. For the game he had 10 tackles, three sacks and a tackle for loss.

“It was just me going all out, running to the ball, being around the ball,” Whitehead said. “It gave me the opportunity to make those plays.”

Whitehead made an impression on the coaches before last week.

“He’s been playing well the entire preseason and has done a nice job,” Caldwell said. “From the first preseason game to the last one last week, he’s certainly been getting better all the time and improving.

“He’s always been a factor in terms of special teams and I think he’s expanded his improvement.”

Roster decisions: Careers are at stake, with the mandatory cut to 53 players from the current 75-man roster being made by 4 p.m. Saturday.

“This game is really important to a lot of our guys, (especially) to those that are in tight battles,” Caldwell said.

Competition is especially tight for the starting jobs at offensive right tackle and fullback, and for depth at wide receiver, defensive backfield and defensive line.

Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle are vying at right tackle. A decision could be based on performance against the Bills.

Wide receiver Ryan Broyles has been impressive in his return from a third straight season that was ended by injury. He has sure hands, and he has his quickness back, as evidenced by a 14.1-yard average gain on a team-high eight catches.

The battle between Jed Collins and Montell Owens at fullback has been joined by Emil Igwenagu.

Depth is vital on the defensive line and secondary because of the number or players used in the rotation and the risk of injury at both positions.

Quarterback: The question is whether Dan Orlovsky and Kellen Moore both will be kept as the backups to Matthew Stafford, or if Caldwell will go with a two-quarterback depth chart. Caldwell has done it both ways – two and three quarterbacks – in the past.

Moore has not been active for a game in two seasons as the No. 3 quarterback. A rules change put in place this year allows him to go on the practice squad, which would give the Lions the effect of three quarterbacks – assuming Moore is not claimed if he is let go on the final cut.

However, GM Martin Mayhew has preferred three quarterbacks, and Caldwell has said that Mayhew has final say on the roster.