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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Report: Lions’ C.J. Gardner-Johnson ‘feared to have’ torn pec, out indefinitely

ALLEN PARK — C.J. Gardner-Johnson is reportedly feared to have suffered a torn pec and is out indefinitely, potentially for the season, per the NFL Network.

The Detroit News adds that a team source says, “it’s not looking good for him.”

Gardner-Johnson was injured in the first quarter on Seattle’s touchdown drive to open the game. But the defensive back managed to return and play 70 of the 72 defensive snaps in the team’s overtime loss to the Seahawks. Gardner-Johnson led the Lions with eight tackles, grading as one of their four best defensive players per Pro Football Focus. But, one day after inspiring thousands of fans to don blue ski masks at Ford Field, the starting safety could miss the rest of the season.

“I’m fine,” Gardner-Johnson said after the game.

It’s a potential massive blow to the team’s secondary. And it comes on the heels of the first loss of the season, in which they surrendered 37 points and 328 passing yards, not to mention a handful of injuries. Edge defender Josh Paschal (knee) is on injured reserve and James Houston (ankle) could miss upwards of two months. The Lions could also be without running back David Montgomery as starting left tackle Taylor Decker works his way back from an ankle injury. Halapoulivaati Vaitai’s (knee) status is also murky.

Related: Lions lose another O-lineman ‘for a little bit,’ David Montgomery day to day

Related: Dungeon of Doom: No need to sound the alarm after Detroit’s OT loss to Seahawks

And Gardner-Johnson is so much more than just a ball-hawking, energetic safety. He’s a veteran who has played in some of the game’s biggest moments, with some of the young Lions defenders embracing his personality. Gardner-Johnson led the league with six interceptions while with the Eagles last season. And he had a close bond with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn that helped bring him to Detroit.

Gardner-Johnson was part of the team’s free-agent class, signing for one year after a successful stop in Philadelphia. Emmanuel Moseley, who was also part of that group, has yet to debut for the Lions. The cornerback was working back from an ACL injury, then suffered a hamstring injury in practice.

Gardner-Johnson was expected to start in the slot, with Tracy Walker and Kerby Joseph at safety, after signing in free agency. But second-round rookie Brian Branch shined in camp and the preseason, eventually earning the starting nickelback job. And that was OK, with Gardner-Johnson and Joseph forming a dangerous safety duo on the back end, feeding off of each other’s energy on the field.

Now, it’ll be interesting to see what the Lions do. Will Harris replaced Branch in the opener when the rookie was dealing with cramping. But Walker entered the game when Gardner-Johnson and Joseph dealt with injuries against the Seahawks. Walker played his first nine defensive snaps of the season.

The former team-voted captain is a trusted veteran starter and seems like the logical option at safety. Walker went down with a season-ending Achilles injury three weeks into last year’s season. But he worked his way back for training camp and competed for reps in the new-look secondary. Now, the safety will likely be next to Joseph as the Lions shuffle pieces. With Gardner-Johnson out, though? The Lions are going to need Joseph to continue developing those ball-hawking chops.

“He’s a second-year player, right? He doesn’t realize how good he is, truthfully. One of the best young safeties in the game,” Gardner-Johnson said of Joseph before the season. “He already has, but when he really understands that you ain’t out here by yourself anymore, you’ve got help, you’ve got veterans around you, you can learn the game a little bit more, you’re going to see a whole different Kerby Joseph.

“I mean, he’s a ballhawk. I picked off Tom Brady twice in one season. He picked off Aaron Rodgers twice in one season, twice in one game. That’s hard to do on a quarterback that’s at a level you expect to not make a mistake. For him to take that step, he’s just scratching the surface.”

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