James Ihedigbo Is The Unlikely Lion of Detroit’s Defense

James Ihedigbo is among the most experienced members of the Detroit Lions tenderfoot defense. What sets him apart are his meek football beginnings as a non-scholarship FCS student-athlete and his distinction as the team's only defensive starter with Super Bowl bling.

As the NFL veers towards a kinder, gentler style of play, the result has yielded more open space for offensive skill players to operate as rules have handcuffed safeties, allowing slot receivers and record-setting tight ends to skate across the middle without fear of consequences and repercussions.

There was a time when receivers treaded lightly going across the middle with the caution of a lost hitchhiker who accidentally ventures out onto thin ice over a thawing river.

The Lions anemic secondary was in dire need of an imposing figure to patrol a secondary that had become an ice rink for receivers to skate pirouettes through.

This month, penalties have increased 44 percent across the league during the first two weeks of the preseason thanks to an overemphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding in the secondary, putting more emphasis on discipline in coverage. This ramped up scrutiny of defensive backs has made those versatile enough to play out in open space, play the run and keep his wits without accruing penalties more valuable.

Ihedigbo’s (pronounced ee-HEAD-ee-BO) signing in March signified the Detroit Lions' commitment to crystallizing a pudgy secondary that’s been porous defending the pass in recent years. 

Now in his eighth season, Ihedigbo is embarking on a fortuitious leg of his NFL journey as a newly-minted starter for the first time in his career. Life as a fringe NFL player is as fraught with peril as running routes on thin ice. Yet somehow, Ihedigbo has avoided slipping through the cracks and actually climbed the NFL foodchain. 

The modest two-year deal Ihedigbo signed with the Lions marked the first time in his NFL career that a franchise has invested in him as the starter entering training camp.

Like most undrafted free agents, Ihedigbo’s career has been a longshot into the dark from the beginning. Before he was left sitting on the outskirts of the NFL Draft, Ihedigbo was even further on the fringes of Super Bowl stardom as an FCS walk-on at UMass with a New England football background. In Amherst, Ihedigbo ascended to become a three-year starter and one of the leaders of a juggernaut defense that reached the FCS National Championship Game.

Despite his ascendance, Ihedigbo got stood up at the NFL Draft altar before the Cincinnati Bengals eventually gave Ihedigbo his first sip of the NFL by bringing the 6-1 safety out for their rookie mini-camp. However, the chalice was snatched away because Marvin Lewis’ squad couldn’t make room for both Ihedigbo and the safeties they’d drafted in the fourth as well as seventh rounds, and quickly cut ties with their expendable NFL neophytes.

Some athletes let the reminder of getting overlooked fuel the rocket that carries them past their previously established limits.

Jordan’s infamous Hall of Fame speech inveighing against the coach who cut him from varsity sophomore year is the gold standard of grudges. Tom Brady has memorized the names of each of the quarterbacks drafted before him and each spring, draft prospects vow to make teams regret letting them languish into the draft’s twilight.

Ihedigbo can’t recount the names of the Bengals two safety draftees that pushed him out, but subtly alludes to neither one being in the league anymore—not that he’s keeping score.

Marvin White, the Bengals fourth rounder, had three separate stints with Cincy, but has been a free agent mainstay since 2010.  Seventh round pick Chinedum Ndukwe became a starter in the secondary, but gradually injuries and business endeavors pulled him out of the league.

However, the next day the New York Jets decided to bring him in for the mini-camp where he’d earn a spot on the bottom end of their 52-man totem pole as a special team’s runt before getting some shine at safety as well.

“Rex was awesome. I have a great deal of respect for him. He taught me a lot about myself in terms of my play and what it takes to be successful in this game,” Ihedigbo beamed. “Including the mentality of how the game is supposed to be played — fast, physical, controlled violence.”

FCS walk-ons aren’t supposed to make NFL rosters, let alone sustain lengthy careers in a bulimic sport that chews up athletes and spits ‘em out without hesitation.

“My whole career has been kinda the whole underdog mentality, not given an opportunity and continuously when the odds are against me prevailing.” Ihedigbo explained in an exclusive interview at The Shadow League offices.

Ihedigbo credits his work ethic for allowing his career to hit its stride at the age of the 30, when most of his peers have been laid out to pasture or are being picked off by Father Time.

In New England, the atmosphere was diametrically opposed to the laissez-faire culture with New York’s B-franchise. Belichick dictated a more strictly regimented and meticulously micromanaged unit.

“Everyone’s expected to take notes at every team meeting. Everything has to be structured per player.” Ihedigbo reminisced.

Whether it’s for everyone or not is a different story.

“You can’t expect everyone to conform to one way of thinking. That’s more of New England’s style and they draft guys accordingly.” Ihedigbo indicated.

“The Patriot Way. That’s what they disguise it as.” Ihedigbo added with a subtle smirk.

Yet, Ihedigbo had a breakout season in 2011, recording 69 tackles and sacking Joe Flacco on a pivotal third down in the AFC Championship Game’s third frame.

After being released by the Pats, Ihedigbo inked his typical one-year contract, this time with Baltimore and embedded himself behind the Raven Impaler, Bernard Pollard, on the Ravens depth chart.

“Going to Baltimore where I’m back in that be yourself, same guy everyday mentality, you are accepted no matter how different you are, or where you came from, what round you were drafted in, or if you weren’t drafted as long as you can help this team win, you’ll play,” Ihedigbo pointed out. “Going back to that mentality, really allowed my career to flourish.”

Following the post-Super Bowl exodus of aging vets, Pollard and Ed Reed, the Ravens spent their lone first round pick on strong safety Matt Elam, the youthful human wrecking ball out of Florida. However, Ihedigbo threw a monkey wrench in those plans, beating out Elam for the starting strong safety job and stamped his name on the job with a new career-high of 101 tackles.

In Detroit, Ihedigbo will be anchoring a defense coordinated by Teryl Austin, his secondary coach in Baltimore for the past two seasons and his primary area of concern is putting the fear of God into receivers who trespass between the hash marks and plugging up leaky running lanes.

In 2013, Ihedigbo was often lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage pre-snap and often given blitz assignments. His 10 pressures in 38 pass rush attempts ranked fourth out of all safeties and according to Pro Football Focus, he was the top run-stopping safety according the site’s Run Stop Percentage metric.

Unlike many of the ball hawking safeties roaming NFL secondaries these days, the only three interceptions of Ihedigbo’s career came last season against Andy Dalton.

“He’s one of those quarterbacks that I’ve learned that he likes certain throws.  There are certain throws in the game that he likes to throw. You give him throws he’ll take it. You make him think he has it and then take it away and he’ll still try to take it.”

Juxtaposed with former Texan free safety Glover Quin in Detroit’s secondary, Ihedigbo subscribes to the widespread belief that the Lions have the capacity for greatness. However, he also believes that their talented greenhorns can develop a championship mentality through osmosis.

“We’re so talented. A very talented team. It’s just a matter of winning the close games and finding a way to be consistent.” Ihedigbo opined.

The leader tasked with unearthing that latent potential is former Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, whom Ihedigbo characterizes as an enlightened teacher as opposed to the combustible gas leak that was Jim Schwartz.

“He’s different. He’s not your typical head coach. He’s like a philosopher.” Ihedigbo explained. “He looks up different successful leaders throughout history, whether it’s in the military or a journalist to get his point across of the key things that they all have in common to generate success."

Playing varying roles on Jets, Patriots and Ravens teams that have reached four AFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls, in addition to a national runner-up finish in his final collegiate season, has instilled Ihedigbo with winning habits.

Conversely, the Detroit Lions organization is about as familiar with winning pedigrees as Westminster Kennel Club finalists are with the Iditarod. The team's been to the playoffs just once this millenium and hasn't tallied a playoff W in 23 seasons. That’s where Ihedigbo’s influence comes in after spending his career in the prosperous environments fostered by the likes of Rex Ryan, Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh, not to mention Ray Lewis, Pollard and Ed Reed.

“It’s awesome to be at a position where you’re looked at as a guy that’s a leader, a starter and now living up to the expectations that are before me.”

Facing 40/1 Vegas odds to win the Super Bowl, Detroit still has a long ways to go before they can get Ihedigbo back in the winner's circle, but those aren't the longest odds he's ever faced.