Breaking down Detroit Lions defense: How close is Jeff Okudah to contributing?

Detroit Free Press

There’s more buzz about the Detroit Lions as playoff contenders this fall than there has been in recent years. How they answer these three questions will help determine how far they go: (Read the offense breakdown here)

How big a role will Jeff Okudah play in the secondary? 

The Lions made Okudah the highest-drafted cornerback in 23 years, but no one should expect the rookie to come in and approximate Deion Sanders – or even Darius Slay – right off the bat. In fact, judging by training camp, Okudah probably won’t be in the starting lineup when the Lions open the season Sunday against the Chicago Bears.

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Okudah played primarily with the second-team defense in camp, and for now looks to be the team’s No. 4 cornerback. Desmond Trufant should start at left corner, Amani Oruwariye has taken most of the first-team reps at right, and Justin Coleman will play in the slot. Okudah worked primarily at left cornerback with the second-team defense this summer and rotated in at both spots with the first team. I suspect he’ll play early on special teams, perhaps as a gunner, and rotate in defensively every couple series to get his feet wet experience, spelling Oruwariye on one drive and perhaps Trufant on another, early in the season.

That won’t convince those who questioned using the No. 3 pick on a cornerback that taking Okudah was the right move, but let’s keep this in perspective. Cornerback is a notoriously difficult position to play as a rookie and Okudah’s learning curve was lengthened by having no formal offseason program and a shortened training camp. He’s talented, though, enough so that he should crack the starting lineup eventually. Year 1 won’t come without its bumps, but Okudah should make his share of plays, too. 

[ Breaking down Lions’ 2020 depth chart: What we expect from Adrian Peterson ]

What more can the Lions do to generate consistent pass rush?

The Lions ranked 31st in the NFL in sack rate last year, getting to opposing quarterbacks on 4.58% of their pass attempts. That’s a big reason why they struggled to generate turnovers, and why their defense underperformed for a second straight season.

Curiously, the Lions did not do much to address the pass rush in the offseason and instead are relying on small changes in personnel and scheme to do the trick. Up front, new additions Nick Williams and Danny Shelton have never been big sack producers, though Williams did have six sacks – the first six of his career – in his breakout season last year. There’s not much depth behind those two and defensive end Trey Flowers, so one injury could be a crippling blow to the defensive front.

[ Lions DT Nick Williams: We’re here to change the NFC North pecking order ]

The other big addition is linebacker Jamie Collins, and the Lions are counting on his versatility – and the versatility of the rest of their linebacking corps – to improve the defense. In Collins, Christian Jones, Jarrad Davis and Jahlani Tavai, the Lions have four almost interchangeable parts at linebacker. All four can rush the passer or play out of a stack position, which in theory should make it harder for opposing offenses to identify what the defense is trying to do. The Lions don’t have a player as disruptive as Danielle Hunter or Aaron Donald, and it’s possible when the season is over we look back and scratch our heads at the lack of meaningful pressure the unit generated once again.

What impact will new coordinator Cory Undlin have on the defense?

Undlin is taking over play calling duties this season from head coach Matt Patricia after spending the past decade working with defensive backs in Jacksonville, Denver and Philadelphia. He’s a high-energy coach and a stickler for details who players have said demands excellence in everything they do. 

[ Here’s why Lions players will take to new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin ]

While Undlin has more autonomy than former defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, there won’t be a huge change in the way the Lions defense looks. They’ll still use lots of sub-package personnel groupings to flood the field with defensive backs, and rely on interchangeable parts in their front seven, often playing with a three-man line.

With no preseason games, it’s tough to tell how Undlin will call a game, though, and that could give the Lions defense an edge early in the season. The Lions played more man-to-man defense than any team in the NFL last year, and were among the teams most adverse to rushing with more than four men. Undlin’s tendencies will develop in time, but for now the only apparent change is he’ll ask his cornerbacks to play sides rather than travel with opposing receivers like Darius Slay did the last two years.

3 newcomers to watch

LB Jamie Collins: Collins was arguably the Lions’ biggest free agent addition of the offseason, and the team thought enough of him that it cut ties with a productive starter in Devon Kennard to go get him. Collins is more versatile than Kennard, who lined up almost exclusively at the left outside linebacker spot, and he’s a bigger playmaker. Last year, he had career-highs in sacks (seven) and interceptions (three) while playing in a New England Patriots defense that’s schematically similar to what the Lions will do this fall. Collins’ best seasons have come in New England, though the narrative that he’s struggled outside of Bill Belichick’s lair isn’t exactly fair. He had 107 tackles his first season with the Cleveland Browns, missed 10 games the following year, then rebounded with another 100-tackle season in 2018. He turns 31 in October, so his signing isn’t without risk. But the Lions will deploy him all over their linebacking corps and think he can be playmaker on a unit that’s light in that area.

S Duron Harmon: There’s a theme with the Lions’ offseason additions as Harmon is one of three ex-Patriots (along with Collins and nose tackle Danny Shelton) brought in as part of the team’s defensive makeover. Harmon never started more than eight games in his seven seasons in New England, so he’ll be stepping into a bigger role in Detroit. But he’s already established himself as a locker room leader, and like Collins, has playmaking ability – he had 10 interceptions the past three years, plus two more in the playoffs – the Lions have historically lacked. Harmon will play primarily as a center fielder for the Lions, and that should free Tracy Walker to fill his best role, as a tight end stopper in man and underneath coverage. Harmon earned the nickname “The Closer” in New England for his habit of making big plays late in games, and for a Lions team that struggled to protect second-half leads last year, he could be an important addition.

DL Nick Williams: Williams spent half a decade bouncing around the NFL before finding a role with the Chicago Bears last year. He had the first six sacks of his career in 2019 and parlayed that big season into a two-year, $10 million contract in Detroit. The Lions are counting on Williams being more than a one-year wonder, or a product of playing alongside Khalil Mack. He’ll start at left end and join Shelton and Da’Shawn Hand in a three-man rotation they hope will provide some much-needed interior pass rush. Williams had some nice moments in camp, but history hasn’t been kind to 30-year-old free agent signings. Perhaps he’ll be the exception to the rule.

Depth chart

Defense

DE Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara

DT Danny Shelton, John Penisini

DL Nick Williams, Da’Shawn Hand

LB Christian Jones, Reggie Ragland

LB Jarrad Davis, Jalen Reeves-Maybin

LB Jamie Collins, Jahlani Tavai

CB Desmond Trufant, Jeff Okudah

CB Amani Oruwariye, Darryl Roberts

NB Justin Coleman, Tony McRae

S Duron Harmon, C.J. Moore

S Tracy Walker, Will Harris

Special teams

K Matt Prater

P Jack Fox

LS Don Muhlbach

KR Jamal Agnew, Marvin Hall

PR Jamal Agnew, Danny Amendola

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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