ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Haloti Ngata jogged off the field Sunday afternoon and didn’t look completely right. Soon after, the defensive tackle was taken to the locker room. He never came out, done for the day, and the season.
That might be the final time Ngata wears a Detroit Lions uniform in a game, too, as the team placed him on injured reserve Tuesday with a biceps injury. The 33-year-old is in the final year of his contract with the Lions, and it’s not clear yet whether Ngata will want to continue playing or if Detroit would like to have him back.
It’s likely too early for those types of questions. And some of those answers could end up being dictated by how those who replace Ngata -- A'Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence, Caraun Reid and others -- play in his absence. But there is little doubt what Detroit will be missing the rest of the season.
“He’s an incredible individual not just in terms for what he does for us on the field because he’s been able to do a lot of great things for us, but even off the field with his leadership,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “It’s huge. You don’t necessarily go out and find another Haloti Ngata. I mean it’s just not going to happen.
“But we do have guys that we have in place that we think can get the job done that we ask them to do. We’ll get it done.”
Spence is likely to slide into the starting lineup next to Robinson. Datone Jones, a 2013 first-round pick of the Packers, could join the rotation this week, along with rookie Jeremiah Ledbetter and Reid, the tackle whom Detroit re-signed Wednesday. And Khyri Thornton, who has been a consistent presence at the team facility as he serves a six-game suspension, could be brought back as well. Detroit could also use defensive end Cornelius Washington inside on passing downs.
So it’s a unit without the space-eater or star power Ngata once provided. But it is one that still has some depth, although it’s tough to know what Detroit will get out of Jones, Reid or Thornton at this point.
Ngata was never a big statistical force in his two-plus seasons in Detroit. He didn’t put up the Pro Bowl-like numbers he did on a consistent basis during nine seasons in Baltimore, when he made five Pro Bowls and was twice named first-team All-Pro. But when he was healthy and comfortable in the Lions defense, he was a factor.
And 2017 was turning into his best season with the Lions. Before he was hurt against Carolina in Week 5, Ngata overpowered a Panthers lineman to sack Cam Newton. Ngata's experience, size and skill are big reasons why the Lions have a top-five run defense.
When Ngata has been in the game, opponents have rushed 51 times for 3.37 yards. Only one, Atlanta, broke 4 yards per carry when Ngata played. In three games -- including Sunday's -- Detroit’s opponent averaged less than 3 yards per carry when Ngata was on the field.
Caldwell said there was “no doubt about it” that Ngata was having a big season, perhaps the start of a late-career renaissance. But that’s been cut short, at least for now.
And if Sunday was the final time Ngata plays for the Lions -- or at all -- Caldwell said he would vote for Ngata if he had a Hall of Fame ballot. (He does not.)
“Just look at the impact he’s had on the game. I think he went to five or six straight Pro Bowls early on in his career,” Caldwell said. “Powerful guy that is kind of a little different breed. He’s one of the few big men on the inside that can just flat-out run. You watch him cover sideline to sideline.
“Even during his early years he did some unusual things. And his numbers will probably ... I’m not certain what his numbers are. I would anticipate that they’re pretty impressive overall.”
They are. Ngata was third in the league among interior linemen in tackles (499), second in pass breakups (27) and first among batted passes (25) from 2006 on, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He was also one of the most dominant interior linemen in the league during the past 10 seasons.
The question now is whether or not he’ll keep playing, and if he does, where will that be.