Wojo: Dan Campbell’s Lions in a spirited rush to find a pass rush

Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s hands on, energy up and voices raised at Lions camp these days. Dan Campbell figures before you can change a negative culture, you have to change a negative atmosphere. Lions players used the word “fun” so many times during the first week of training camp, it was hard to tell if they were purely excited about Campbell or just happy the other guy is gone.

Erasing the dreariness of the Matt Patricia regime was the first task. By intangible measures, Campbell and GM Brad Holmes have done that. Of course the true fun comes from winning, and the Lions have been universally pegged as a five-win team, for now.

But you know what else is fun? Watching Campbell dive into the drills alongside his players. Hearing fans cheering wildly, then seeing the entire team sprint over to the stands at the end of Saturday’s practice to cheer them back.

And you know what else is fun, from an actual football standpoint? A major element missing for years here, something that can alter a game and ignite a crowd.

They’re called sacks. You know, the act of hitting the opposing quarterback with malice and hurling him to the ground.

The Lions haven’t just been horrible on defense. They’ve been horribly passive, read and react, maintain gap control, stay in your lane. They regressed each of the past three campaigns, from 43 sacks to 28 to 24, which ranked 27th last season.

Ready to attack

Nothing improves a defense quicker than a pass rush, and the Lions have some pieces to generate one. The difference is, in coordinator Aaron Glenn’s 3-4 base, they’re going to get more chances to attack. It should be especially beneficial for Trey Flowers, who will stand up at outside linebacker more often instead of putting a hand in the dirt. Same for Romeo Okwara, who just signed a three-year, $37 million contract extension with the thinking he can be an elite disrupter, after collecting 10 sacks in 2020.

“We’re definitely looking past last year, we definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” Okwara said. “Looking at all the different categories, I think we were 32 in a lot of them, which is definitely embarrassing.”

Just for accounting purposes, I’ll recite some of them. Last in the league in yards allowed (419.8 per game), last in points allowed (32.4), last in opposition passer rating (112.4), next-to-last in interceptions (seven).

The secondary was as weak as the pass rush, which is not coincidental. No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah was one of the NFL’s lowest-rated cornerbacks, partly because he was hurt (he underwent hernia surgery in the offseason) and partly because he wasn’t helped by Patricia’s inflexible scheme, which required defensive backs to hold coverages longer.

The Lions’ new staff is acutely aware of that. Glenn was the defensive backs coach in New Orleans the past five seasons when the Saints rose from the 31st-ranked secondary (yards allowed) to fifth. The staff has made an immediate impact on safety Tracy Walker, who looks poised to recapture his early promise. Okudah raves about the fresh teaching, saying, “It would have been nice to have these tools in my toolbox in my rookie year.”

Aubrey Pleasant is an eager distributor of those tools. He was the secondary coach on a terrific Rams defense the past four seasons and has a similar role with the Lions. Pleasant made the amusing and enlightening observation that the best cornerback he ever played with was Aaron Donald, the Rams’ all-world interior pass-rusher, whose constant pressure dramatically reduces coverage time. The Lions couldn’t get Donald but they got the big guy next to him on the Rams’ line, trading for veteran Michael Brockers.

‘We expect to be playmakers’

Holmes also drafted Levi Onwuzurike in the second round and Alim McNeill in the third, significant additions to the defensive line. Along with Da’Shawn Hand, Nick Williams and John Penisini, there’s some heft and depth there. It’s not as established or touted as the offensive line, which could be a top-10 unit, but with the right scheme-tinkering, at least it could be impactful. Pro Football Focus’ analytics placed Okwara and Flowers among the top 13 pass-rushers in the league.

“It’s definitely a new experience, and I’m having fun with it,” Flowers said. “Just being able to not think about too much, just do your job and do it fast. I really like that about it. In the outside-linebackers room, we expect to be playmakers.”

If they are, and the offensive line is as cohesive as it should be, and the running game is boosted, the Lions might be in an unusual position for them. They might not have to pin everything on their own quarterback, and can pin their ears and target the opposing guy.

Jared Goff won’t be asked to do as much as Matthew Stafford tried to do. But the defensive line will be asked to do a ton more.

“I tell you what they can become,” Campbell said. “They can become a wall in the run game, and then push the pocket and create pressure in the pass game. The whole premise of this defense is about getting (McNeill) and Penisini and Brockers and Nick up the middle, and then here comes Trey Flowers and Romeo and Julian (Okwara) off the edge. And then here comes Jamie (Collins) up the middle.

When the quarterback’s got nowhere to go, that’s when he’s in trouble.”

When Campbell talks, the words tumble out in colorful, emphatic bursts, wrapped around sound football principles. He’s not carnival-barking or cheerleading. He’s trying to stir passion that has been dormant for a while around here.

When more fans show up this week for practices, they’ll be heard and noticed. They might even get another exuberant pep talk from Campbell, who’s in constant motion around the field.

“We know this is a competitive business, it’s high stress, and we certainly know it’s all about the wins,” Campbell said. “But if you forget to have fun, you’re not playing up to your potential. I swore if I ever got this job, I was not gonna do that. Like I told the team the first night, I want to enjoy this ride, every bit of it.”

It figures to be a wild ride, one way or another. For fans, seeing Lions defenders actually visit the other team’s backfield would be a highly enjoyable start.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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