Last year, the Detroit Lions‘defense was one of the worst in the league by almost every measure. They allowed the second-most points, the fifth-most rushing yards, the fourth-most total yards, and the third-highest passer rating — all while producing the third-fewest sacks and the ninth-fewest turnovers.
“I think we have a defense, gentlemen.”
The Lions’ first-team defense held the Steelers to three-and-outs on three of four possessions that afternoon, but could the Lions defense really see that big of a turnaround as the season begins?
On Thursday, general manager Brad Holmes and assistant general manager Ray Agnew talked extensively about the defense. While they stopped short of setting any expectations or making any specific predictions, they seem pretty optimistic about that unit, too.
Here are five reasons they pointed out.
Secondary already answers some questions
Holmes admitted that entering this offseason, the secondary of the Lions had the biggest questions about it. To be sure, the Lions weren’t guaranteed to have any of their 2021 starters back. Tracy Walker was a free agent, and the Lions didn’t have any promising depth behind it.
But the Lions were able to bring back Walker, sign DeShon Elliott in free agency and draft a developmental option in Kerby Joseph. Holmes, however, pointed to JuJu Hughes’ January waiver claim as another big move. they did
“Making a late claim like that during the postseason you have to wait, he goes in, and so I don’t think a lot of noise has been made about it,” Holmes said. “But that move ended up being big for us down the road.”
At cornerback, the biggest question was the status of former third overall pick Jeff Okudah. After suffering a torn Achilles in Week 1 last year, no one knew what he would look like physically to this point in the year. Not only was Okudah physically cleared by the start of training camp, but he improved enough during practices to earn the starting job.
“He was challenged, and he earned it,” Holmes said. “And we were up front and honest with him and he didn’t bend over backwards or anything, he took it and he earned it. So, many of those questions were answered and it was much appreciated.”
Pass rush improvement
Of all the defensive positions, the Lions invested the most in a running back this year. They re-signed Charles Harris to a two-year deal, spent the second overall pick on Aidan Hutchinson, and spent a few more draft picks on edge defenders in Josh Paschal (second round) and James Houston (sixth round).
Agnew is thrilled with what Hutchinson has already accomplished in camp and is optimistic about his future.
“I can’t stop smiling. I love the kid,” Agnew said. “The kid is relentless, effort, and a much better athlete than you thought he was in the draft process. Man, the things he can do, rushing the passer, inside, off the edge, using his hands. He is very creative as a speedster. I would just say this, we got the right one.”
Holmes was much more focused on Harris, who had a breakout season with 7.5 sacks. The Lions’ general manager seems to be waiting an even bigger year out of him this year.
“In the right environment and everything that happened, Charles, he even took another step,” Holmes said. “You go out to the grass, you look, and you’re like, ‘He’s even looking even more explosive than he was last year.’
Holmes also provided a reminder that if the Lions can get some of their injured players back, this will be a deeply competitive unit.
“You deal with that with when Josh Paschal comes back, and he can provide some speed,” Holmes said. “(Romeo) Okwara, he will be able to apply speed. So, there’s a lot of intrigue about our drive-in rush.”
Linebackers step up to the challenge
Entering the spring, the linebacking corps looked like one of the weakest in the NFL, certainly the weakest unit in the team. Detroit’s only notable additions to the group were sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez and special teams tight end Chris Board. It looked like the starting duo would once again be Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes, two players who ranked in the bottom eight of all NFL linebackers in PFF grades last season.
But linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard assured us that tight competition will bring out the best in the group. Flash forward to September and that’s exactly what we saw.
“I thought that group responded,” Agnew said. “I thought there was a lot of competition in that group. We brought in some new guys, really only had a few guys that played last year, brought in some new guys and we created competition. And I think that group responded very well.”
Of course, the main story out of the linebacker group was Rodriguez. The rookie linebacker burst onto the scene and it only took a few weeks to go from third-team defense to first-team defense. His ability to diagnose plays immediately moved expectations up from a four-phase special teamer in Year 1 to someone capable of contributing on defense immediately, even if the Lions are still trying to moderate expectations.
“Being a quarterback in high school, you know what I mean, he just has a level of key diagnosis that translated,” Holmes said. “But again, you just don’t know quickly that it’s coming but it has come, come quickly. But it can’t be said enough that he’s a rookie. He hasn’t played an NFL game yet, so let’s just see where it goes.”
Rodriguez isn’t the only player among the group who has shown promise, though…
Young kids taking the next step
Barnes is one of many young players on this defense that the Lions expect to make a 2-year leap—and the team has already seen signs of that.
“There were some guys with us last year that will help (our defense), will some young guys like Derrick Barnes take that next step,” Holmes said. “I think it all comes together.”
There’s also second-year defensive tackle Alim McNeill, who gets some buzz for breakout candidates for 20222021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike, and Jerry Jacobs, who appears close to returning from his injury.
Both Holmes and Agnew couldn’t help gushing over defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn as a reason to be optimistic about the defense this year.
“The one thing that interests me is AG,” Agnew said. “Like Brad said, he’s very talented, and when you have an aggressive guy, and then you have extremely athletic kids and some guys that I think are violent football players that he can use, he has the ability to use those tools. I think , that’s going to be a recipe for success. So, I’m excited about our defense this year, how we’re going this year.”
Holmes was specifically impressed with the way Glenn adapted the defense this offseason to match the talents of the players at his disposal.
“We’re very, very fortunate to be in a position to have him leading our defense,” Holmes said. “And so, (he) made some—not wholesale changes—but an adjustment here and there in our scheme, but what I love about our coaching staff is everything is done for the benefit of the players. And so, that’s why those adjustments were made “