Five questions facing the Lions defense for the 2020 season

Detroit News

The Detroit Lions defense was bad last season. To be frank, it’s been pretty rough each of the past two seasons.

So, it should come as now surprise the team made significant changes this offseason, including a change at coordinator and potentially six new starters. 

Will those changes be enough to turn things around? Is that even possible given the truncated offseason? We explore five of the biggest questions facing the unit. 

1. Where’s the pass rush going to come from? 

Almost any way you slice it, the Lions defense was brutal a year ago. And while you can find holes in all three levels, success typically starts up front, both with stopping the run and disrupting the passer.  

During Matt Patricia’s tenure, the Lions have largely shown the ability to slow down opposing ground games. But when it comes to rushing the quarterback, the team has severely lacked, which has put added stress on the team’s secondary.  

In 2019, only the Miami Dolphins recorded fewer sacks and the Lions were dead last in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate, measured as the ability for a lineman to beat his block in under 2.5 seconds. Trey Flowers was Detroit’s only consistent threat.  

There are a number of ways the Lions could improve this year, but none are assured. Romeo Okwara has to offer more than the 1.5 sacks he tallied in 2019, while brother Julian, a third-round draft pick, needs to find a way to quickly transfer his collegiate success to the pros.  

On the inside, Da’Shawn Hand staying healthy would provide a big boost, especially when paired with free-agent addition Nick Williams, who tallied six sacks with the Bears last season.  

Finally, the Lions have a lot of pass-rushing talent in their linebacking corps. It’s up to defensive coordinator Cory Undlin to find the right combination of pressure packages that can unleash the group’s versatility.  

► 2. Can the team find a way to generate turnovers more consistently? 

We hit on it above with the pass rush, but few plays alter the course of games more than turnovers. The Lions had some success forcing fumbles last year, in large part thanks to nickel cornerback Justin Coleman’s ability to punch the ball free. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement.  

As for interceptions, the Lions finished tied for last in the NFL with seven. Then the team traded Darius Slay, its best cover cornerback, to the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason. That’s not to say they didn’t make an effort to upgrade the secondary.  

Duron Harmon, coming over from New England, has a long history of picking passes. He’s snagged 10 the past three seasons. And Desmond Trufant, signed around the same time Slay was dealt, had a career-high four interceptions in nine games last season.  

If the line does its job, forcing opposing quarterbacks into some rushed decisions, the talent is there in the back end to take advantage of mistakes.  

► 3. Will things finally click for Jarrad Davis? 

The Lions made the anticipated decision to not pick up the fifth-year option on Davis’ contract this offseason. How could they? The former first-rounder simply hasn’t developed into a dominant down-to-down linebacker in his first three seasons.  

No one is questioning Davis’ drive. He works his tail off, and he’s a strong leader in the locker room. It just hasn’t come together between the lines, with too many missed tackles, poor pursuit angles and blown coverage assignments.  

Obviously, the potential remains. The athletic gifts are there, the flashes of ability are there, and his commitment to bulking up this offseason can’t hurt. Now it’s a matter of whether things will finally click. Will his mental processing reach a level where he’s able to maximized his physical abilities?  

It’s unfortunate, because you want a roster full of guys with Davis’ mentality, but the clock is ticking on his time in Detroit, especially with Jahlani Tavai waiting in the wings, ready to take over as the franchise’s middle linebacker.  

► 4. Will the new Patriots addition be the missing pieces? 

The impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic raises its own set of questions — primarily how much will the truncated offseason will impact overall performance? The Lions, claiming to foresee how the virus could impact the practice routines, opted to plug holes at every level of the defense with former Patriots.  

On the surface, it’s smart business. These are all established veteran players with a deep understanding of both the scheme and cultural demands of Patricia’s program. While everyone can benefit from practice time, Harmon, Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton should need far fewer reps to get acclimated to their new environment.  

But will it be enough? Collins is probably the biggest piece to the puzzle, and is coming off a fabulous year, but he needs to be a significant upgrade over Devon Kennard as a playmaker to be a difference-maker in Detroit.  

The Lions simply cannot compete with a repeat of last year’s defensive output. Unless you’re the Kansas City Chiefs, you’re not going to win enough games allowing 26.4 points per week.    

► 5. How rough will the transition be for Jeff Okudah? 

The Lions made Okudah the highest drafted cornerback in more than two decades when they selected him with the No. 3 pick in April. If you ever took the time to watch his college film, you’d understand what fueled the confidence in the choice.  

But there’s an acclimation period for rookie cornerbacks. Even for a technically proficient prospect like Okudah, man coverage in the NFL, with officiating designed to benefit offenses, demands snap-to-snap perfection. And if training camp has shown us anything, the Ohio State product is going to have plenty of moments of inconsistency after being robbed of valuable developmental time this offseason.  

Okudah might turn a corner faster than Slay did. The former Lion didn’t start putting things together until his second season. But plan on some patience, both with his play and potentially his playing time, which might be split with Amani Oruwariye at the start of the season.   

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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