Detroit Lions mailbag: Slow start has fans looking for changes

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

Two weeks into the season and Detroit Lions fans have just about seen enough. Given we haven’t cleaned out the mailbox in four months (sorry about that), it seemed like a good time to do a mailbag. 


► Question: Any chance they find a way to pressure the quarterback? — @wayne_wyckoff

Answer: I wouldn’t anticipate the Lions solving that long-standing deficiency this season. The personnel is what it is. Trey Flowers is a solid pass-rusher, but he’s not an elite pocket disrupter like a Khalil Mack, Von Miller or Chandler Jones. And beyond Flowers, the defensive front lacks a consistent threat. The best hope for improvement hinges on the rapid development of Julian Okwara, who was a healthy scratch last weekend in Green Bay. 

A big part of Detroit’s problem is the lack on an interior push, which has the ability to funnel sacks into the waiting arms of their edge rushers. Danny Shelton, like Damon “Snacks” Harrison before him, isn’t that style of player. Nick Williams proved he could be in Chicago last year, and definitely showed glimpses of that during camp, but he’s already banged up with a shoulder injury. 

As for blitzing, the Lions are currently sending an extra rusher 22% of the time. You shouldn’t expect to see the rate climb much higher than that. It’s just not in coach Matt Patricia’s schematic DNA. 

► Q: Our roster is basically constructed with all Patriots/Patricia type guys that fit their system. Can we honestly afford anything but keep Patricia around until some of these contracts are more manageable? — @joshuahein

A: That won’t be a factor. You have to remember, most NFL contract figures are artificial and there are only a handful of players who are scheme-specific and carry significant cap commitments beyond this season. 

Any respectable coach can work with the skill sets of guys like Flowers, Jamie Collins and Justin Coleman. And the dead money cap hits, triggered when a player is released or traded, tied Christian Jones, Williams and Shelton aren’t too troubling. 

► Q: The fan base seems ready to part with the regime, but what’s the mood in the building? — @adkammeraad

A: Tricky question this year more than most since the building is off-limits to media. As part of the team’s pandemic response, the media room was converted to team office space to meet social-distancing standards and keep potentially infected media members from contaminating the facility. 

That also means no open locker room. Most media-player interaction comes in the form of Zoom calls, and in that sterile environment you’re going to miss out on the more genuine, honest interactions. 

Still, from the handful of text and phone conversations I’ve had this week with people in the building, the mood is about what you’d expect — a mix of anger and frustration. But there’s also professionalism. No one is quitting, and a healthy percentage legitimately believe they can turn it around. 

► Q: Any early head coaching candidates for 2021 Lions on the radar? — @crossnoe7

A: Honestly, I’m not there yet. Even with all signs pointing toward the inevitable, I still have day-to-day responsibilities covering the regular season. If and when it gets to that point, there are going to be some obvious names thrown out immediately, including Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, but I really need to scour the professional and college ranks before I can provide a more complete answer. 

► Q: Should they look at moving Crosby over to the LG spot while Dahl is out? — @ABarrett8012

A: A reasonable question, given Oday Aboushi’s early-season struggles. My reluctance would be centered around Crosby’s limited work at the guard spot. The footwork is different, and the pulling and second-level blocks require repetition to perfect. Thrusting him out there in a game, while also likely expecting him to be prepared to move back outside at the first sign of an injury, could really fracture his week-to-week focus, anchoring his ability to perform at a high level. 

► Q: Who is most responsible for the Lions having a good O-line? — @ElGatoPolloLoco

A: It’s probably premature to suggest the unit has finally arrived, but it’s certainly been a promising start. Obviously, credit first goes to the players. Despite the shortened offseason, they came to training camp in great shape.

Next, I think we look to position coach Hank Fraley. The players have really connected with him and his experience as a longtime NFL center gives him credibility in the room. 

Finally, we can all agree that a running back like Adrian Peterson, who gets the most out of the holes he’s provided, is making the line look better. It’s been a long time since the Lions have had a dynamic, north-south runner like Peterson. 

► Q: With the current calls to fire the staff. What are your thoughts on roster construction starting from (relative) scratch every few years due to the new schemes with the coaching carousel? — @tdunham325

A: Despite 11 straight losses, the cupboards wouldn’t be bare, like they were after the 0-16 season. The Lions have young, talented pieces at several key positions, including defensive end, wide receiver (assuming Kenny Golladay is retained), running back, tight end, offensive line and the secondary.

And the quarterback is pretty good, too, although it’s easy to see a new GM having a different, long-term vision at that spot. A discussion for another day. 

Sure, there’s always going to be some level of personnel adjustment with a change, but the Lions have plenty of scheme-flexible building blocks. A new regime would not be starting from scratch. Any potential hire who believes they need to tear it all down probably isn’t the right man for the job. 

► Q: Do you expect Marvin Jones to get the Golden Tate treatment and get traded if we continue to struggle?  — @JeffRomback

A: It’s a good question and it really depends on how Bob Quinn is treating the job if the season is clearly slipping away. Assuming ownership allowed him to stay on through the end of the season in that scenario, getting draft equity for Jones wouldn’t be a bad move, especially if the Lions could net another third-rounder or better near the deadline. 

Jones has lived up to his contract with the Lions. Other than some durability issues, he’s been a reliable weapon for quarterback Matthew Stafford, averaging nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns per 16 games. 

But with an expiring deal and closing in on his 31st birthday, it’s worth exploring the trade market. That would certainty be preferable to letting him walk in free agency and getting nothing.  

► Q: If the lions are 0-4 at the bye and get blown out by Arizona and New Orleans, does Patricia get axed? — @BergeyMbergey

A: No one knows, because there isn’t precedent for either this environment, given the pandemic, or new owner Sheila Ford Hamp’s patience. In the scenario you envision, fan anger is likely to crescendo if there’s no action by ownership. And worse yet, you risk a sharp increase of apathy for the product. 

► Q: Do the Lions have enough talent on defense or is it a scheme problem? — @trumanfrancis

A: We know the scheme works because we’ve seen it flourish in New England, both before and after Patricia left for Detroit. So the flawed execution is some combination of game-planning, in-game adjustments and personnel. 

Ask three different experts and they’ll likely assign different percentages of the pie to those three things. I frequently ask myself, if Bill Belichick was given the same defensive personnel, how would this group perform? That’s a difficult hypothetical to ask, but given what he got out of Flowers, Shelton, Collins and Duron Harmon in New England, I lean toward the Hall of Fame coach finding a way to turn this into a top-15 group, maybe even top-10.  

At this point in the process, three years in for Patricia, there’s almost no way to say coaching isn’t the bigger problem than the scheme or personnel. 

► Q: What team should I root for instead? — @bhammond

A: Who doesn’t like a winner and Kansas City looks like they might be near the top of the league for a little while. As for up-and-coming franchises, both the Bills and Cardinals are fun, with dual-threat quarterbacks leading explosive offenses. 

I’d also recommend finding individual players to invest some of your emotional energy. I can’t reasonably recommend rooting for the Patriots, but it’s easy to appreciate Cam Newton’s comeback story.  

► Q: Is Tracy Walker a good safety? Middle of the pack in NFL, better/worse? — @EricMaxa

A: It is my opinion that Walker is a good safety. Great, no, but good with physical gifts that give him a Pro Bowl ceiling. Like most others, I don’t understand why the Lions have reduced his role in favor of Will Harris this season. Walker can line up deep, in the box and handle many of the league’s tight ends in man coverage. 

Yes, Walker lost his footing and gave up a touchdown against the Packers. Every player has bad plays on their film reel. He also had a couple of pass breakups in Green Bay and was one of the team’s better defenders in the season-opener. 

► Q: Is Lions ownership oblivious to the fan angst toward them? Are they aware of the increasing apathy toward the team? Are they aware, after 60 yrs of losing, it seems like their free ride with fan loyalty is quickly coming to an end. You can feel it. Or, do they just not care? — @Famcole1

A: They are not oblivious. They care, deeply. But caring isn’t enough. The Ford family hasn’t shown the ability to fix it for six decades, consistently making bad football hires. Because she’s a Ford, Sheila is starting in a hole with this fan base. Because I’m not emotionally invested, I’m content to reserve judgment on her abilities to lead this franchise until she makes some of those big decisions on her own. 

► Q: Favorite non-QB in the draft? — @TOOFASTFOYO

A: Oh, yeah, I almost forgot that’s where fan attention goes when the Lions are playing poorly. With COVID-19 disrupting college football this year, I really haven’t paid too much attention to the next wave of prospects. 

Offensively, the Lions will likely be in the market for a receiver. As usual, Alabama and LSU both have top options in Patrick Surtain II and Ja’Marr Chase. Tough to go wrong with either one.

Defensively, it’s got to be the best pass rusher. That’s currently got to be Miami’s Gregory Rousseau. He has the build, athleticism and production you like to see coming off the edge. 

► Q: When do you think Okudah will adjust to the NFL level of play? — @Roderick8109

A: Based on his maturity and technical prowess, the curve should be less for Okudah than it was for Darius Slay, who didn’t put everything together until his second season.

But Slay also didn’t have to deal with the loss of OTAs as a rookie, so their timelines might align a little closer than originally anticipated. 

► Q: Do you think the Lions dress Hunter Bryant if he’s healthy this week? — @alldetroit24

A: Probably not, especially with the rest of the roster getting closer to full strength. The Lions obviously liked what they saw in Bryant during the limited window in camp before he suffered a hamstring injury, but he has a lot of catching up to do, physically and mentally, before he sees meaningful game-day action. 

► Q: Has Patricia addressed why Julian Okwara was a healthy scratch last week?  — @jasonhatch20

A: He was asked after the game. Here was the answer:

“Obviously, we’re trying to put everybody out on the field there that we needed, based on some of the injuries that we had and the positions that we needed for special teams, offense and defense, and sometimes that’s just how the numbers work.”

It’s not an overly satisfactory response, which is why I didn’t write it up previously. Basically, Patricia was noting the team had needs elsewhere due to injuries, primarily in the secondary, which required some shuffling on special teams, as well. 

► Q: Stafford is a class act and always says the right things. I know he doesn’t give away much, but do you think he’d ever get to the point he’d request a trade? Or when his contract is up sign elsewhere? I’d really like to see what he could do on a balanced team.  — @Tim1213

A: I think the most likely way a trade request plays out is if a new general manager or coach come in with a different vision for the future and make that clear to Stafford in the offseason. In that scenario, it could be sold as a mutual parting, beneficial for both sides. 

In any conversation I’ve ever had with Stafford, I’ve never sensed anything but the desire to play and win with the Lions. 

► Q: Why aren’t we using Jesse James in the passing game? — @CraigFe60141609

A: Because there are, at a minimum, eight better pass-catching options on the roster. The James signing, which I can admit I also thought was a solid addition at the time, has been one of Quinn’s worst. It’s difficult to imagine the relationship lasting beyond this season.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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