Is The Fonz back? Lions corner steps up play

Detroit Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith has had a rough 12 months. However, after last weekend's breakout performance against the Vikings, the former starting cornerback may have finally got his groove back.

Detroit Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith has had a rough 12 months.

One year ago, almost to the day, Smith found himself on the injured reserve list with a shoulder injury.   The injury came one week after a forgettable, nationally-televised outing against the New England Patriots that saw Smith on the wrong end of a few Tom Brady touchdown passes.

Smith was having a breakout season prior to his turbulent finish to the year, so optimism was still high for the third-year corner heading into 2011.  However, Smith entered training camp with a foot injury and subsequently lost his role on the defense. 

It was unlikely Smith would earn a starting role, as Eric Wright and Chris Houston had a firm grasp on the starting cornerback positions early in camp, but Aaron Berry and – more surprisingly – Brandon McDonald surpassed Smith on the depth chart.

As a result, Smith was inactive for five of the team’s first 11 games, while filling only a special-teams roll for the six contests he did participate in.

When Houston injured his knee during the Lions Thanksgiving day contest with the Green Bay Packers, it opened the door for two players: McDonald and Smith.

An important thing to know here is that both players are hard workers and both have a lot of confidence in themselves but most of the similarities stop there.

Smith is more of a quiet worker, normally going about his business while not being overly vocal while McDonald is a little more outwardly emotional.

A great illustration of this was during the preseason, as the team was preparing for the regular season, McDonald expected to be the team’s top nickel back.  He lost that battle with Berry and was not happy with the result. 

He took to Twitter to express his displeasure.  

It is understandable that – after a lot of exhausting effort – one would be disappointed after finding out they didn’t earn the spot they were aiming for but expressing that frustration, immediately, through social media is not a productive reaction.

Smith, like McDonald, was extremely disappointed in his lack of play  He believed he could help the team contribute and was frustrated to not be given the opportunity. Rather than worrying about factors outside of his control, he quietly worked hard and prepared every week as if he was going to be the starter.

That hard work may have been more beneficial to him than he ever realized it could be. 

Smith played well in limited appearances against the New Orleans Saints nearly two weeks ago.  His play made McDonald expendable, who was released to bolster a defensive line absent of suspended Ndamukong Suh and injured Nick Fairley.

The release of McDonald and the injury to Houston allowed Smith to enter Sunday’s contest against Minnesota as the team’s nickelback.  In-game injuries to Berry and Wright shuffled Smith to the front of the line: the team's top cornerback. 

Smith capitalized on the opportunity, nabbing two interception, one that he returned for a touchdown, to go along with five tackles, and three passes defensed.

Smith credits his time in the previous week practicing with the scout time; normally a dubious honor for a former starter, he had the chance to play against the team's No. 1 offense. 

“I should have played when I played,” said Smith.  “You can always talk about how you should have started this game or that game, the Lord is in control and I played when I was supposed to play and I told someone earlier that it was a blessing in disguise that I had my first real action last week.   I had this entire time to practice against Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettirgrew.”

Smith still has more work to do.  The reason from his initial fall from grace was his tendencies to gamble.  The former second-round draft pick has great ball skills but can be burned due to his risk-taking. 

Two consecutive plays in the second quarter can be looked at as great examples. 

On the first play, Smith covered a deep route, read the play perfectly and got his hands on the ball in the end zone, just barely failing to hold on for the interception.  On the next play, Smith jumped his man’s route but was fooled by a double move, getting beat for a would-be touchdown that was overthrown by quarterback Christian Ponder.

Smith’s hard work is paying off and although he can still continue to improve, he’s made significant strides towards winning back his coach’s trust.

“He’s playing very good technique football right now,” said head coach Jim Schwartz.  “He had some problems last year with guessing a little too much, but his interceptions came on playing good technique.”

Smith’s journey from starter to scout team was a maddening experience, but the 26 year old is slowly working his way back on the field.  

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