Four Downs: If Lions’ defense is going to get better, it must bring the heat

Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 41-33 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

First down

Of all the things that went wrong in the loss, the defensive performance was, without question, the biggest disappointment.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction on the practice field during training camp, but the unit had looked ready to turn a corner coming off the worst season in franchise history. In reality, the road to recovery is going to be a longer one than hoped, particularly if the same flaws that existed a year ago persist into the present season.

Most coaches will tell you defense is a marriage of rush and coverage. That’s true, but everything starts up front. Successful teams are often the ones that affect the quarterback consistently, and the Lions certainly didn’t do that enough against the 49ers.

On downs where the Lions rushed just three or four, they rarely got interior push and the team’s edge rushers rarely won their individual matchups, offering quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo adequate time to survey the scene and deliver the ball unencumbered to an open receiver.

The Lions were easily more effective when blitzing, which resulted in five of their seven pressures and their lone sack. And for what it’s worth, they blitzed more often than not, bringing at least one extra rusher on 15 of San Francisco’s 27 drop backs.

But if the Lions are ever going to turn things around defensively, their front has to start winning individually, particularly Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara and Michael Brockers.

Levi Onwuzurike could help as well, but the rookie was scratched from the lineup on Sunday after spending the offseason and the past week of practice dealing with injuries. It’s just not sound strategy to bank on first-year players.

Second down

Answering a question about the performance of the team’s ground game (which was unquestionably a highlight), Lions coach Dan Campbell made a point to acknowledge Detroit’s lack of a downfield passing attack in the loss.

Quarterback Jared Goff’s reliance on checkdown passes came as no surprise to anyone who watched him in Los Angeles a year ago or on the practice field through training camp. While the team has continually insisted the deep ball is part of their scheme, it rarely showed up in practice and wasn’t much of a factor on Sunday until late.

Goff actually ranked near the top in attempts of 20 yards or more across the league on Sunday, but the numbers are skewed by the shots he took during the team’s desperate rally in the closing minutes. More importantly than the seven shots is the fact he completed just two.

Then again, this was the scouting report of the guy they traded for when they sent Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles. In 2020, Goff attempted 43 passes 20 yards or longer and completed just 13. It’s simply not his forte, despite having potential deep options in Tyrell Williams, Kalif Raymond and Quintez Cephus.

Don’t think for a second that Goff’s inability to take advantage of his downfield options wasn’t a factor in Los Angeles moving on this offseason. That move looked all the more justified when Stafford uncorked a successful deep ball to Van Jefferson on the second snap of their game Sunday night and followed it up with a 56-yard touchdown to Cooper Kupp down the middle of the field later in the contest.

Yes, Campbell is right, the Lions need to find a way to push the ball down the field. But finding a way to successfully do that with Goff is a tall task.

Third down

There’s no question about it, first-round draft pick Penei Sewell impressed in his debut. Watching the game a second time, his run blocking stood out as his calling card. Despite being the youngest player in NFL history to start at left tackle, he looked like a seven-year veteran with the way he got movement in the ground game.

Sewell’s pass protection was adequate, particularly when we consider he was going head-to-head with one of the game’s premier young pass rushers in Nick Bosa. Yeah, the rookie clearly lost some of those snaps, allowing four hurries and two quarterback hits according to Pro Football Focus, but, overall, he rubber-stamped what the Lions saw when taking him with the No. 7 pick this past April.

The coming dilemma, of course, is Sewell eventually will need to shift back to right tackle once Taylor Decker is healthy. Against the 49ers, Sewell demonstrated what we already knew: He’s significantly more comfortable at the position he played in college, but there’s even less logic in moving Decker, who was one of the league’s best blindside blockers in 2020 and hasn’t played right tackle since his sophomore year at Ohio State in 2013.

In the end, the Lions are best to stick with their original plan. Given Sewell is younger, with far less reps, it should be easier to reprogram his muscle memory during a rebuilding year.

But, in the unlikely event the position change is showing clear signs of failing by season’s end, the Lions might have to make a difficult decision. I can’t say for sure what that looks like, but as premature as this hypothetical is, I’m not certain we can rule out shopping Decker in a trade. A quality offensive tackle, who is typically durable and still in his physical prime, could very well net the Lions a first-round pick or two Day 2 selections.

The other side of this equation is the team spent the months after this past draft touting the strength of the offensive line as the foundation of the roster. Trading Decker would immediately void that. They’d have to go find another right tackle, likely in the draft, since Rick Wagner and Halapoulivaati Vaitai have shown free agency doesn’t bear the best fruit. Basically, you’d be trading Decker for a lottery ticket you hope gets you another player of his caliber.

Fourth down

Campbell presents himself as a throwback coach, but you have to appreciate how aggressive he was going for it on fourth down in this game. Sure, the results were mixed, but the approach reflects an honest assessment of his roster, while also having the potential to play well in the locker room because of the trust he’s putting in his players in those moments.

After the game, Campbell noted the strategy was game-plan specific. He pointed to the explosiveness of the opponent, requiring his offense to score touchdowns, not field goals, to keep pace.

“Man, our margin for error is so small,” Campbell said. “We have to play the game a certain way. It’s just the way we are and the way we’re built.”

That honestly, to the fans through the media, continues to be one of Campbell’s most refreshing traits. Not only is he direct with his players, he’s direct with outside observers. It’s easy to respect.

And who doesn’t love aggressive football? In the long run, fortune tends to favor the bold. It’s nice to see five years of mentorship under New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton rubbing off on Campbell’s Sunday approach.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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