We talked about the offensive roster last time. All that remains is the state of the defense and special teams. First up, the D + fence.
This has been a running issue for Detroit. Have they been good lately? Well, behind Ndamukong Suh, Glover Quinn, and DeAndre Levy (all named All-Pro), the Lions ranked 3rd in points allowed in 2014 (17.6 PPG). Hey, that’s great, right? Only 7 years ago? Not so bad! Never mind that last year they only managed 32nd in points per game allowed (32.4) and set franchise record for most PPG allowed and most yards per game allowed (419.8). This is worse than the 0-16 season (32.3 points and 404.4 yards per game). The 6,716 yards allowed in 2020 were the 3rd most by any team in NFL history. Now that’s why you hire a defensive specialist as head coach! Once again, LIONS! Outside of 2014, Detroit hasn’t managed to be better than 10th in points per game allowed since 1983. So, yeah, that was a bit of an exception.
We will look at the defensive position groupings individually, starting with a relative bright spot, the defensive line. Last year’s standout performer was Romeo Okwara, who managed 10 sacks (the rest of the team only had 14 combined). He took a discount to re-sign with the Lions (3 years for $39 million), possibly because he wanted to keep playing with his brother Julian, a 2020 3rd round pick. Trey Flowers was solid, but missed more than half the season due to injury. Everson Griffen and Da’shawn Hand could be good contributors as well. Nothing too exciting, but definitely the most solid group on a generally very poor defense. Moving on to linebackers, this is basically Jamie Collins and a bunch of question marks. Jahlani Tavai was not good last year and Jalen Reeves-Maybin is mostly there for special teams contributions. Veteran Alex Anzalone followed Dan Campbell from New Orleans, and he is a solid NFL starter, but Brad Holmes is going to have to find someone good in the draft to supplement the guys currently on the roster. In the defensive backfield, things look even worse. Tracy Walker at safety is probably the best of the bunch right now, and cornerback Amane Oruwariye was better than expected. The 3rd pick of last year’s draft, Jeff Okudah, was way, way worse. Yes, he was a rookie, but he ranked as one of the worst cornerbacks in football by most metrics. You expect way more from a cornerback taken that high. You don’t actually expect a cornerback to be taken that high very often, so if you’re not Patrick Peterson (5th in 2011) or Charles Woodson (4th in 1998), the pick will be questioned. Not that Okudah is a lost cause yet, but it was not an auspicious start to his career.
One thing that could help are the coaching changes. Maybe new leadership and ideas will help the young players develop. The lack of sacks (24, which was 26th in the league) and interceptions (tied for 30th with 7) come down to pressure and scheme. Patricia expected the defensive line to provide pressure while rarely blitzing. The personnel wasn’t talented enough to get to the QB without help, and playing man to man meant opportunities for interceptions were low. Plus, the time the opposing QB had before pressure arrived made the defensive backfields job all but impossible. Top level talent could pull this off, but let’s just say the Lions were a little shy of top level in the talent department. While they won’t have significantly more talent next year, one of Campell’s talking points was adjusting the scheme to the abilities of the players rather than forcing them in to the preferred approach. Hopefully he and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will blitz and play zone when that’s the best course of action instead of being dogmatic and inflexible like the previous staff was.
We’ll finish off this rebuild review with the special teams and predictions next time. I think the success of the teams’s defense in 2021 will be mostly down to coaching. They didn’t have an awful defensive roster last year; there’s no reason they needed to be dead last. Being a quarterback is hard; if the coaches can make it harder by creating pressure, varying the scheme, and using pre-snap deception, the Lions stand a chance at a decent season on that side of the ball.