FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Since being traded from the Detroit Lions to the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason, cornerback Jeff Okudah has been by the side of Falcons assistant head coach for defense Jerry Gray as much as possible, and Gray has been telling Okudah for a while now that Sunday is “just another game.”
“Hopefully, he thinks like that if he does play,” said Gray, who coaches Atlanta’s secondary.
Of course, it’s not like any other game. The Lions drafted Okudah with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft but shipped him to Atlanta in the offseason for a fifth-round pick, a surprisingly low price for a cornerback whose NFL.com draft profile included the words “dream prospect.”
There’s no guarantee Okudah will play Sunday when the 2-0 Falcons and 1-1 Lions meet at Ford Field. He has been sidelined since early August with a foot injury suffered in training camp. He was listed as a full participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday, but it’s doubtful the Falcons will make any commitment about his status until Sunday.
Okudah’s career in Detroit was filled with injuries, which is part of the reason it ended prematurely. He missed the first game of his NFL career because of a hamstring injury and went on injured reserve later that season with a groin injury. In 2021, he played only one game after tearing his Achilles tendon. Last season, he finally got almost a full season on the field, playing 15 games and totaling 73 tackles and one interception.
Okudah’s time in Detroit “kind of got rid of that utopian mindset that things will always go perfect,” he said.
He has learned instead “to take things as they come,” he said.
“I’m learning how to respond, how to bounce back,” Okudah said. “I think in this game you can’t get too high or too low, so I’m just focused on the task at hand, showing up and being the best I can be for this team.”
Part of that process is not holding any ill will toward the Lions.
“In retrospect, I’m just really glad to be here, so I guess you could say it worked well for both sides,” he said. “If I was there, I would put my best foot forward, but I’m here so I’ll put my best foot forward.”
Gray is happy to hear that.
“You have to fight that ‘I want to get revenge’ thing because it doesn’t work,” Gray said. “If you get revenge and you lose, you hurt the team. I think if he’s thinking about the other 10 guys he is out there playing with, it won’t be so much about him; it’ll be about the Atlanta Falcons and what we’re going to do on Sunday.”
Tre Flowers, who had started 15 total games in three seasons before coming to Atlanta, started the first two games of the season in the spot the Falcons expected Okudah to take. Atlanta’s coaches haven’t ruled out the possibility that Okudah will rotate with Flowers if he does return.
“We’ve got a deep secondary,” defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can play. Hopefully, we’ll get him back in some kind of way.”
Nielsen has been impressed with Okudah’s aggressiveness since his arrival in Atlanta.
“Jeff was playing at a high level when (the injury) happened,” Nielsen said. “He plays with really good speed. When he’s on the field, he can go. He’s such a big corner, and he’s a physical player, so he’s got a really good combination of size, strength and speed.”
Cordarrelle Patterson, listed as “Joker” by the Falcons, popped back up on the injury report Thursday. Patterson was listed as “did not participate” Thursday because of the thigh injury that has kept him out of the first two games of the season. Patterson was not on the injury report at the end of last week or this Wednesday. Linebacker Troy Andersen cleared concussion protocol this week and is expected back after missing last week’s game.
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Injury luck on Atlanta’s side
The Falcons’ injury issues aren’t nearly as significant as the Lions’. Detroit will be without safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who went on injured reserve this week, and could be without starting running back David Montgomery (thigh), starting wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (toe) and starting offensive linemen Taylor Decker (ankle) and Halapoulivaati Vaitai (knee). St. Brown was limited in Thursday’s practice. The rest of the quartet missed practice, but Falcons coach Arthur Smith doesn’t sound convinced Detroit will be short-handed.
“You have to have the mindset that they are all going to play until they make them inactive on Sunday,” Smith said. “Got to have a plan for everything. They have good depth.”
So far this year, the Falcons have faced the Carolina Panthers without starting wide receiver D.J. Chark Jr. and the Green Bay Packers without starting running back Aaron Jones, starting receiver Christian Watson and starting offensive lineman David Bakhtiari because of injury.
The key to slowing the Lions
There won’t be any surprises when the Falcons defense and Lions offense are on the field. Gray and Detroit offensive coordinator Ben Johnson faced off twice a year from 2020 through 2022 when Gray was the Packers’ defensive backs coach and Johnson was coming up through the ranks of the Lions’ offensive staff.
“The thing we have to do is make sure we eliminate the explosive plays and make sure they throw the ball in front of us,” Gray said. “They love explosive plays. Going against those guys the last three years, if you can eliminate the explosive plays, you have a chance to win, but if you let them get explosive plays, they can run just about anything they want to in that offense.”
The Lions’ explosive play rate (11.9 percent) ranks sixth in the league, according to TruMedia. That’s a slight improvement from Johnson’s first year as offensive coordinator, when Detroit finished 14th in the league (11.3 percent). Only two teams in the league have more plays of 20-plus yards this season than the Lions’ 10.
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On the road, but not again
Sunday will be the Falcons’ first road game since Dec. 24, which will give quarterback Desmond Ridder a chance to win for the first time away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Falcons have pumped noise into their practices this week to simulate the environment at Ford Field.
“You have to be able to go call the play maybe only hearing two or three words of the play,” Ridder said. “It’s really about absolutely locking in 100 percent on the game plan and just knowing it even more inside and out and communicating.”
The most interesting comment of the week came from Gray, who contrasted the Falcons’ 2-0 start to his time in Green Bay when the Packers went 13-3 and 13-4 in 2020 and 2021.
“That becomes what you expect,” Gray said. “I think we’re in the learning phase of how to win now here. We’re learning how to win. When we get to the expectation phase, that’s when you’re really good because guys are going to be shocked when you lose. I know we’re in that phase. I talk to coach Smith about that often, how our guys are learning how to win in different ways.”
(Top photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today)
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