Four Downs: Lions finally patch the potholes on defense

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

Phoenix, Ariz. — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 26-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday:

First down

Coming into Sunday, Detroit’s defense was broken. They couldn’t stop the run, they couldn’t stop the pass, they couldn’t get to the quarterback and they sure as heck weren’t forcing any turnovers. Even in a week-to-week business like the NFL, it was fair to wonder if they’d be able to turn things around this season.  

Obviously, they got plenty of things corrected for the Arizona matchup, because outside of rushing the passer consistently, the unit stepped up in a big way against one of the league’s up-and-coming offensive attacks.  

One of the more interesting components of the performance was who saw their playing time cut.  

Both linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Will Harris have been oft-criticized for their inconsistent performances, dating back before this season. Lions coach Matt Patricia had been peppered regarding Harris, in particular. For reasons still unclear, the coaching staff was leaning on him in favor of Tracy Walker in many situations, which never made much sense.  

As for Davis, his play has rarely matched his lofty draft status as a first-round selection in 2017. It’s a shame, because his athleticism and football character are both off the charts.  

After starting the first 43 games of his career, Davis came off the bench and played a career-low 15 snaps. Harris was on the field a touch more, 19 defensive snaps, but it didn’t come at the expense of Walker, who never left the field in the victory.  

Who knows what finally led to the changes. Maybe it was Aaron Jones’ 75-yard run a week earlier, where Davis and Harris had the biggest breakdowns. Regardless, the coaching staff deserves credit for adjusting, even if it took longer than you might have hoped.  

Now it’s up the staff to find ways to keep Harris and Davis situationally involved, building them back up, for when the Lions need to lean on the two again.

More: Niyo: Desperate Lions didn’t go to the desert to die

Second down

The Lions debuted a new-look offensive line against Arizona that delivered mixed results. With Halapoulivaati Vaitai cleared to debut, but Joe Dahl on injured reserve with a groin injury, the Lions slotted their projected starting right tackle in at right guard, flipping rookie Jonah Jackson from the right side to left guard.  

It was a creative effort for the team to get their five best available linemen in the lineup. Tyrell Crosby, who started the first two weeks at right tackle in place of Vaitai, had certainly been more consistent than veteran Oday Aboushi had been at guard.  

That was the logic. The reality is the changes put a big strain on the chemistry of the unit, particularly the interior. Vaitai, despite his previous experience at guard, hasn’t taken many reps there since signing with the Lions. And the rust that accumulated while he recovered from a foot injury showed. He allowed two sacks and drew a holding call that could have cost the Lions the game.  

Still, it might have been even uglier if he lined up at tackle, where he’d have been asked to block Chandler Jones, one of the league’s premier pass rushers.  

Even with the issues, don’t be surprised to see the setup again next week since Dahl won’t be eligible to return to the lineup until after the week 5 bye and leaving Vaitai on the bench after signing him to a $45-million contract this offseason, would be tough to stomach.  

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Receivers, special teams, Jamie Collins shine in triumph

Third down

Because the Lions play at 1 p.m., I rarely get a chance to watch the pregame shows. This week was an exception. And while the exact context escapes me, Michael Strahan was making a point on Fox about not letting good players get away. It echoed something similar to what former Lions coach Jim Caldwell said on Glover Quin’s podcast a month ago.  

The Lions have let some good players get away under general manager Bob Quinn. That group includes Darius Slay, Quandre Diggs, Larry Warford and Graham Glasgow. To a lesser extent, you could also include Golden Tate in that conversation, but at his age and with the third-round pick the Lions got in return, it’s tough to say that wasn’t the right move, even if the timing felt off at the time.  

But the point I’m getting at is Quinn needs to abandon his unstated stance regarding in-season contract negotiations and find a way to get a deal done with Kenny Golladay before the team has little option other than using the franchise tag, which is a less-than-ideal setup for all parties.  

Golladay provided a much-needed boost to the offense on Sunday, and even though he was still limited by a lingering hamstring strain, he topped Detroit’s receiver production, including a remarkable touchdown grab on a ball too high for 90 percent of the league’s pass catchers.  

His across-the-board improvement the past three years has been remarkable and there’s little doubt he’s a bonafide No. 1, Yeah, it might cost $20 million per season to net Golladay’s signature, at least  based on what the Chargers recently forked over for comparable production with Keenan Allen, but the Lions simply cannot afford to let another good player get away.  

More: Jeff Daniels details heartache of Lions fandom with ‘Silver and Honolulu Blues’

More: Fox’s Bradshaw: Lions’ Bob Quinn should be fired, Matt Patricia has ‘gotta go’

Fourth down

When the Lions traded for veteran safety Duron Harmon, they saw the opportunity to acquire both a schematic and cultural fit. In terms of the former, he’s long thrived as a playmaking deep safety in this Patriots-style defensive scheme.  

That showed up in the big way against Arizona when he recorded his first interception of the season, before nearly snagging a second in the second half.  

That dropped pick emphasized what makes Harmon tick. Despite the thrill of getting in the win column, one of his first thoughts was the play he didn’t make, apologizing to Patricia for the mistake after the final whistle.

Harmon’s leadership also shined through the week of preparation for Sunday. With outside criticism reaching a fever pitch, and in danger of leaking into the ears and minds of the players, Harmon and several other veterans found a way to channel that energy into Sunday’s result.  

“I think if anything, I was just harder on people,” Harmon said after the game. “Had to let people know, like this isn’t the preseason anymore. And it wasn’t just me. Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins, the leaders on the defense, we realized we had to pick ourselves up. You know when we go out there and play the game, it’s a practice feel to it, no fans. You’re out there and you’re competing, but it’s nothing. You got to bring the energy within and I made a conscious effort that I wasn’t going to allow the energy to die throughout practice. Because I knew if it didn’t die throughout practice, then it wouldn’t die throughout the game.

“I just took it (upon) myself and the leaders we took it amongst ourselves to make sure that the energy was there each and every day. To make sure that we compete no matter the drill, no matter the situation in practice. We just knew that if you can compete for the entire practice, you can do it in the game.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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