Three story lines that will define the Detroit Lions defense in 2021:
How much better will the Lions be defensively this fall?
Well, they can’t be worse, right? The Lions set franchise records for points and yards allowed last season, when they had one of the worst defenses in NFL history. They ranked near the bottom of the league in takeaways, and players often looked paralyzed by their confounding scheme.
Aaron Glenn vowed to eliminate the confusion when he took over as defensive coordinator in January, and early returns are positive so far. The Lions shifted to a base 3-4 defense, moving Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara to outside linebacker. They will deploy more two-high safety looks to help their young cornerbacks. And if the preseason is any indication, they will be more aggressive with their blitz packages.
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The Lions still lack elite playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and they have an incredibly inexperienced secondary, including just two cornerbacks — Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye — who have ever played a coverage snap in the NFL. I wouldn’t expect miracles from the unit. The talent isn’t there for a complete reversal of fortune. But they’re deeper up front, have better teachers doing the instructing and should at least be able to cobble together a cohesive unit that keeps them in games.
What can we expect from Okudah in Year 2?
The No. 3 pick of last year’s draft, Okudah had a disappointing rookie season. He made a debacle of a debut in a Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers, and things only went downhill from there. Battling a college groin injury that eventually required season-ending surgery, Okudah allowed completions on 77.4% of the passes thrown against him, according to Pro Football Reference, and finished as the 117th-ranked cornerback (out of 124 qualifying players) as graded by Pro Football Focus.
Okudah has been mostly healthy this summer and, save for a few blips in a preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, has looked like a different player. He was a blanket in downfield coverage in training camp and an alpha on field in drills. He seems more confident and comfortable heading into Year 2, fully bought in on Glenn and new secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant.
Okudah played exclusively left cornerback in training camp and projects as the Lions’ No. 1 cover man this fall. Glenn said the Lions may travel their cornerbacks some in the regular season, which means Okudah could spend gamedays matched against the likes of Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson. Those are difficult assignments for any cornerback, and I’m not sure Okudah will ever live up to his lofty status as one of the highest cornerbacks ever drafted. But I feel good saying he will take a sizable step forward and have a productive season in 2021.
How big an impact will rookie DL Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike have?
The Lions spent their first three picks in April’s draft on linemen and used back-to-back Day 2 picks to fortify the trenches on the defensive side of the ball. Both McNeill and Onwuzurike should be in the playing rotation this fall, and McNeill could be the Lions’ most impactful rookie.
A two-year starter at North Carolina State, McNeill is the Lions’ projected Week 1 starter at nose tackle. He was extremely disruptive in camp and held his own even when going against Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow. Nose tackles don’t generally accrue big counting numbers in tackles or sacks, so you’ll have to look closely to see his impact. But McNeill has the makings of a future star.
Expectations are lower for Onwuzurike after he missed a good chunk of training camp with a back injury. He should start the season as a backup to Michael Brockers and Nick Williams and see time as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. We’ll see how Onwuzurike’s back holds up, but given the Lions’ age and other injury issues up front, there’s a good chance he cracks the starting lineup before the season is done.
3 newcomers to watch
DL Michael Brockers — The other player the Lions acquired in an offseason trade with the Los Angeles Rams, Brockers is penciled in for a big role on Detroit’s re-designed defensive front this fall. The 30-year-old missed significant practice time with an undisclosed injury this summer, but said late last month he expects to be ready in time for Sunday’s season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Brockers is coming off a five-sack season and has topped 50 tackles each of the past four years. Surely, some of that production was due to lining up next to Aaron Donald, but he adds value to the Lions as a locker room leader and mentor for draft picks McNeill and Onwuzurike.
CB A.J. Parker — An undrafted rookie out of Kansas State, Parker won the Lions’ slot cornerback job with an impressive training camp. He made 11 tackles and broke up two passes in three preseason games, and when Glenn challenged him to be more a physical run defender, he responded with two plays in the backfield against the Steelers. Given his youth and inexperience, there’s a good chance opposing offenses challenge him early in the season, but the Lions felt good enough about his development and future to let two more experienced nickel defenders go when they set their initial 53-man roster last week.
LB Derrick Barnes — Alex Anzalone and Jamie Collins will open the season as the Lions’ starting inside linebackers, but it won’t be long before Barnes cracks the playing rotation. A fourth-round pick out of Purdue, Barnes showed natural instincts and playmaking ability this preseason, once he got healthy from the hamstring injury that limited him going back to the spring. He has a nose for ball as a run defender, looks decisive as a blitzer and should eventually hold up well in coverage. By this time next year, there’s a good chance he’s wearing the headset and relaying the play calls on defense.
DL Michael Brockers,
NT Alim McNeill, John Penisini
DL Nick Williams, Levi Onwuzurike
OLB Trey Flowers, Charles Harris
ILB Alex Anzalone, Jalen Reeves-Maybin
ILB Jamie Collins, Derrick Barnes
OLB Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara
CB Jeff Okudah, Ifeatu Melifonwu
S Tracy Walker, C.J. Moore
S Will Harris, Dean Marlowe
CB Amani Oruwariye, A.J. Parker
K Austin Seibert
P Jack Fox
LS Scott Daly
KR Kalif Raymond, Trinity Benson
PR Kalif Raymond, Trinity Benson