Four Downs: Keeping D’Andre Swift fresh; Amani Oruwariye more than a backup

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 30-27 victory over the Washington Football Team. 

First Down

Questions about the backfield rotation had no doubt started to sound like a broken record the past several weeks, but at least since Detroit’s bye, it’s been clear rookie D’Andre Swift was the team’s most dynamic option. 

The Lions finally conceded that fact against Washington, giving Swift the overwhelming bulk of the workload. The second-round draft pick was on the field for 43 snaps, a season-high, compared to 16 combined for Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson. 

That resulted in 149 yards from scrimmage and a receiving touchdown for Swift, his sixth score of the season. Even his pass protection reps were solid, which might be the biggest lingering concern in his game. 

Swift delivered every way you could hope in his first start, rubber-stamping the idea he should be the lead back going forward. But as much as fans would love to see him never leave the field, it’s worth pointing out that workload management will be critical going forward. 

Remember, this is a player who peaked at 220 touches in college and has already suffered an injury this year, a hip issue that lingered for a couple weeks during training camp.

Just last week, Johnson described how his body felt like it had gone through a full season after five games a year ago. That was directly after the Lions started leaning too heavily on him and just before he suffered his second serious knee injury in as many seasons. 

Lions coach Matt Patricia has a deep understanding of managing backfield workloads. He came from New England, a franchise that almost never put too much on one player’s plate. 

Ideally, spelling Swift more through the middle of games will keep him fresh for the fourth quarter, as well as down the stretch of the season. And while the Lions continue to look at Peterson as the next man up after this recent demotion, the team should strongly consider giving more work to Johnson, who offers more versatility, which keeps the playbook open and defenses on their toes. 

Second Down

Another rotation meriting continued attention is at cornerback. With the secondary essentially at full strength, it was Desmond Trufant and Amani Oruwariye who got the start this Sunday, with the latter rotating with first-round draft pick Jeff Okudah. 

Coming into the season, Oruwariye was viewed as a quality backup, a reliable first man off the bench, but he’s proven to be more than that as an injury fill-in much of the first half of the season. That’s why the team continues to find him extensive playing time, and it’s pretty easy to make a case he was Detroit’s best cornerback on the field yesterday. 

In any other year, Oruwariye might take over the starting job permanently, but the Lions aren’t about to remove Okudah, the No. 3 pick in the draft, out of the rotation. But it’s fair to ask why Trufant is exempt from being rotated off.

In addition to being injured much of the season, Trufant hasn’t exactly been steady in coverage. Against Washington, he allowed receptions on six of the eight throws where he was targeted, showing some shaky fundamentals when trying to match receiver Terry McLaurin’s releases. 

Yes, the Lions invested a lot in Trufant this offseason. Additionally, he’s the veteran voice in the room and has an established resume. But while this doesn’t directly correlate with the Swift/Peterson dynamic, since Trufant is still in his physical prime, the Lions shouldn’t be hesitant to give an increased share of the overall workload to the roster’s youth, particularly if it improves their odds of winning. 

Third Down

In our report card immediately coming out of the game, we awarded the offensive line with a B+ for its stellar performance keeping the dynamic Washington pass-rush at bay. Yet after a second watch of the game, we might have undersold the job Detroit’s short-handed line did. 

First of all, Matthew Stafford was sacked once, and really, it was his own fault. Washington blitzed on the play, flooding a right-side gap. Out of the backfield, Johnson did a nice job getting a piece of both blitzers before committing to the inside man. Stafford pulled the ball down, but lingered in the pocket. Given the pressure, he needed to bail, whether to scramble or throw the ball away. 

Subscription: Wojo: Lions and Matt Patricia avert disaster, at least for now

Beyond the sack, Stafford was only pressured three other times, according to Pro Football Focus. And they put two of those on the quarterback, as well, for holding on to the ball too long. 

Remember, Washington came into the game with a top-five pressure and sack rates. Stafford called it the best defensive front the Lions were likely to see this season. Even without starting right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and guard Joe Dahl too banged up with a back injury to be counted on to start, the Lions still shut Washington’s rush down. 

The offensive line has been better this season, although inconsistent at times due to all the moving pieces, but they’ll have a tough time topping this performance. 

Fourth Down

Because the Lions managed to escape with the win, Patricia’s hot seat went from blazing to smoldering. It also kept the team alive in the playoff chase. 

Don’t get it twisted — long shot is probably still too kind of a way to describe the team’s situation — but with winnable games against Carolina and Houston (combined record 5-14) the next two weeks, the Lions have a chance to enter December above .500 and in the mix. 

Of course, to get to that point, the Lions would have to do something they’ve never accomplished under Patricia — win three straight games in a season. 

As it currently stands, the Lions are ninth in the NFC standings, two games behind the Seattle Seahawks for the seventh and final seed. 

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