Why the Detroit Lions benched longtime starting cornerback Amani Oruwariye

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Amani Oruwariye is playing like one of the worst cornerbacks in the league this season. By ProFootballFocus’ measure, he has been the worst cornerback in the league this season. With promising young cornerback Jerry Jacobs due back at the bye, and Jeff Okudah certainly not coming off the field, Oruwariye’s days in the starting lineup seemed like they could be numbered.

Turns out, that number already hit zero before they even stepped on the plane to Foxborough.

Oruwariye was not only benched for the 29-0 loss on Sunday in New England, but did not dress for the game at all. He was a healthy scratch for the first time since the opening months of his rookie season, a stunning fall for a fourth-year veteran who has been a staple in the starting lineup for longer than everyone else on that defense.

He was demoted after an internal review of the Lions’ league-worst defense last week. Personnel changes were promised, and the Lions delivered by benching Oruwariye, safety DeShon Elliott and slot cornerback Mike Hughes — the three most experienced defensive backs they had left. In return, they went with a decidedly young and unproven secondary, with former safety Will Harris starting for Oruwariye at cornerback, former cornerback Saivion Smith starting for Elliott at safety and AJ Parker getting the call over Hughes in the slot.

“Look, we wanted to give Will a try out there,” head coach Dan Campbell said. “And the only reason Amani was (not active), he doesn’t do a lot on special teams. Otherwise he would have been here and probably would have played some. But that’s where you get in a pickle with special teams. But yeah, look, you just try and build a little bit of trust in that back end.”

Trust has been the word de jour throughout the unraveling of the Lions’ defense. They clearly don’t have it, because everyone from Campbell to coordinator Aaron Glenn and multiple players have trotted it out over the last week or two. There were just so many blown assignments in so many pockets of the defense, which is itself a problem. Then other players began to anticipate breakdowns and tried to account for them by doing more than their assignments, which of course led to blown assignments of their own, a nasty little domino effect that Detroit tried to nip by starting players it believed would communicate with teammates and do their jobs.

That meant players like Oruwariye, Elliott and Hughes — all involved in costly blown assignments over the last few weeks — opened the game on the bench. Detroit would rather go with unproven players like Harris as a cornerback and Smith as a safety, if it would at least mean an end to the freelancing and chaos

“That’s one thing we know about AJ, at a minimum, he’s an excellent communicator,” Campbell said of Parker, who started in the slot most of last year. “He’s smart, and he’s got football intelligence. And I know that there’s a lot of trust back there with him at nickel, you know?

“Then we wanted to give Saivion a shot, our third safety. So we were just mixing some things up to see if we could breathe some life back into our defense.”

It didn’t work. The Lions allowed points on six straight drives to open the game and were gashed for another 29 points overall, despite New England starting third-string quarterback Bailey Zappe. The rookie finished 17 of 21 passing overall for 188 yards and one touchdown in his debut. His only blemish was an interception that wasn’t his fault, and he finished with a passer rating of 100.0 in his first career start.

Of course, the injuries didn’t help. Smith, the new starter at safety, lasted just two plays before suffering a neck injury that sent him to the hospital. Elliott, who returned to the field after the Smith injury, wound up getting carted to the locker room with cramps. That left Ifeatu Melifonwu as the only safety on the bench, but he lasted just five snaps before suffering an ankle injury, which forced rookie cornerback Chase Lucas onto the back line of the defense for a series.

Harris, the new starter at cornerback, also left the game in the second half because of a groin injury.

“Will ended up getting hurt, but I thought he was playing pretty good up until that point,” Campbell said. “And look, I told Amani this last week. I said, ‘Man, this doesn’t mean this is (permanent). I mean, you could very much be back up.’ But it was what we needed to do, you know?”

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