Five things we learned about the Detroit Lions in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season:
They might finally have an effective running game
When I sat down with Dan Campbell before the season, one of the topics we discussed was how thin the Lions’ margin for error was this season. Campbell said the Lions have to do nearly everything right to win, and cited the first Dallas Cowboys team he played for under Bill Parcells in 2003 as an example of what could happen if they did. The Cowboys made the playoffs that season — after three straight 5-11 years — because they played great defense, had a sustainable running game and made fewer mistakes than their opponents.
That is going to be the Lions’ recipe for success this fall, though two of those three ingredients may be tough to find. The one that shouldn’t, is running the football. The Lions gained 93 yards rushing on 20 carries from running backs Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift, despite having to abandon their ball-control gameplan early in the second half when they fell behind four touchdowns.
[ Lions CB Jeff Okudah suffered torn Achilles tendon vs. 49ers ]
Chances are the Lions will be playing from behind often, which will limit their rushing output. But if they can run the ball effectively, and they have the offensive line and running backs to do so, they’re bound to hang around and win a game or two they’re not supposed to — if they limit mistakes and are functional on defense.
Williams averaged a hearty 6 yards per carry Sunday and had nearly as many touches (17) as Swift (19) while playing about half as many snaps. The two accounted for three explosive runs (defined as 12-plus yards by offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn) and should have the opportunity for more going forward.
Another long year on defense
The Lions are better defensively than they showed in the first three quarters Sunday, when their only stops on the 49ers’ first seven drives came on a fumbled snap on San Francisco’s first play from scrimmage and a missed 52-yard field goal after an intentional grounding penalty.
But Sunday’s loss exposed two lingering areas of concern: The Lions sorely lack playmakers on defense, and their young secondary is overmatched, especially now that Jeff Okudah is out for the year with a torn Achilles.
On the first point, the Lions did not record a sack or do anything to force their lone takeaway, this after finishing 31st in the NFL in takeaways last season. They simply do not have enough disruptive players. Romeo Okwara will get his share of sacks this season — he let Jimmy Garoppolo slip out of his hands once Sunday — but consistent pressure elsewhere will be hard to find.
Teams with limited pass rushes tend to struggle in the secondary, and that could be true for the Lions given their youth at cornerback. Rookie third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu presumably will join third-year corner Amani Oruwariye in the starting lineup, with undrafted rookie A.J. Price continuing to man the slot. The Lions surely will add a veteran to the mix (Nickell Robey-Coleman is on the practice squad), but that’s a band-aid solution until next spring.
The Lions face a number of better quarterbacks than Garoppolo in the coming weeks, including reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers next Monday. You can bet those quarterbacks are licking their chops at facing the Lions’ defense.
SHAWN WINDSOR: Jared Goff was bad and good, which isn’t good enough for Lions
A decision to make at left tackle
Not now, and not four weeks from now when Taylor Decker comes off injured reserve. But at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Penei Sewell wasn’t perfect in his NFL debut Sunday, but he played well starting at left tackle — better than he had all preseason at right tackle, the position he remains ticketed for when Decker returns. Sewell is a good enough athlete that can play anywhere on the line, but at 20 years old, his greatest future value to the Lions is at the front’s most premium position, left tackle.
Decker, 28, has made it clear he wants no part of switching positions, but has also said he wants to be a Lion for life, and for that to happen, he might have to cede his preferred position at some point.
The Lions are a couple years away from contending and can put off any line shakeup until at least next spring, but it’s similar to the Matthew Stafford situation we’ve talked about ad nauseum in recent years — where a really good player at a really important position is getting older and eventually will be in need of a new contract just as the franchise might possibly be in a window to win — with one caveat: We don’t 100% know how Sewell will play at his new position. If he struggles at right tackle, especially after playing well for a game or four at left tackle, I can only imagine what fans will say and what thoughts might creep into his head.
[ 49ers’ Nick Bosa: Penei Sewell looks ‘more comfortable’ playing left tackle ]
I firmly believe the Lions went into this season hoping to replicate what the Philadelphia Eagles did with Lane Johnson and Jason Peters, moving a rookie to right tackle and having him get so comfortable there they never have to switch. But Decker’s injury, and Campbell’s decision to move Sewell to left tackle Sunday, gave us a glimpse of what Sewell’s future might look like for the next decade-plus.
Future of NFC North completely up for grabs
I’ve been saying this for months, but the weekend’s results only confirmed the obvious: The NFC North is a mediocre division right now, and when Aaron Rodgers is gone from the Green Bay Packers (next year?) there is no reason the Lions can’t ascend to the throne.
The Packers have reigned supreme in the division for three decades thanks to first-ballot Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks in Rodgers and Brett Favre. The next team to wear the belt will be whichever of the Lions, Packers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings nails the quarterback position.
The Packers and Bears have a head start since they have young quarterbacks (Jordan Love and Justin Fields) on the roster, but the Bears are a mess and might have a new coach in 2022, and the Vikings have been gangly trying to field a winner for years while being content to be average at the quarterback position.
The NFC North is the only division in football with four 0-1 teams, and none of them looked particularly playoff worthy Sunday. I believe the Lions will be in a position to draft a top quarterback next spring, and if they’re not, they have the extra draft capital (extra first-round picks in 2022-23) to go get one they like.
That’s not a position where you take a player just because you need one, so some conviction is necessary. But if the Lions happen upon the right guy, they won’t have a green and gold roadblock in front of them — unless Love turns out to be next great Green Bay signal caller.
[ Meet 10 elite college quarterbacks the Lions could eye in 2022 NFL draft ]
T.J. Hockenson might threaten franchise record for receptions
I’ve got to give writer Tim Twentyman of the Lions credit for putting this thought in my head at practice this summer. I pegged Hockenson for a team-high 90 or so catches heading into the season, which would be an excellent season but is a far cry from Herman Moore’s 123 receptions in 1995.
Well, one game into the new 17-game season and Hockenson is on pace for 136 catches. Swift and Williams are, too, but Hockenson is the one with the best chance to sustain that pace given the nature of injuries at the running back position and the Lions’ lack of weapons in their receiving corps.
STOCK WATCH: Jamaal Williams, T.J. Hockenson two of few bright spots in loss
Everyone knows Hockenson is one of the best tight ends in the NFL, including opposing defenses who will do everything in their power to take him away. But the Lions will be playing from behind a lot this year and Hockenson is enough of a mismatch that it’s not a stretch to think he can average just over seven catches a game.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think anyone on this team will challenge Calvin Johnson’s franchise and NFL record of 1,964 receiving yards anytime soon. I did ask Johnson in August if he thinks his record will fall, and he said the player with the best chance is someone the Lions will face later this year.
“Very possible,” he said. “If D.K. (Metcalf) stays healthy, as long as Russell (Wilson is) still around he’s got a shot.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.