Lions mailbag: Improved pass rush a positive in Detroit’s 0-3 start

Detroit News

Allen Park — Following the most Lions-like of losses — on a record-breaking field goal after a string of questionable coaching, execution and officiating decisions — we thought it might be a good time to see what’s on your mind. Let’s check the mailbag.

► Question: Have you seen progress in the defense so far after three games? Young core starting to get a little better under the defensive coaching staff? — @Mr_Brightside82

► Answer: The first two weeks were predictably rough for the young unit, and by Week 3, without Jeff Okudah, Jamie Collins and Trey Flowers — three players you could have safely pegged as stabilizing forces prior the season — it’s cause for trepidation.

But there are two areas where I’m seeing positive improvement that could be viewed as reason for optimism. First, the run defense is making steady strides. After getting gouged by the 49ers in the season opener, the Lions bounced back to hold the Packers to 3.1 yards per carry. And while the yards per attempt average wasn’t great, fueled by Lamar Jackson’s 31-yard gallop, holding the Ravens to 116 rushing yards on the day is far more impressive than it might sound.

The defensive front is doing a better job controlling its gaps, particularly up the middle. They still have room to grow when it comes to setting the edges, but it’s trending in the right direction.

Second, and more encouraging given how bad it’s been the past few years, the team is seemingly finding an effective pass rush. Both against the Packers and Ravens, the Lions generated steady pressure. A big part of the reason they stayed in the game last Sunday is because the defense combined for 25 quarterback hurries, hits and sacks on Jackson.

Not surprisingly, it starts with Romeo Okwara, who is pacing the Lions with 16 quarterback pressures. But he was the lone, known commodity in that department coming into the year. I’m more encouraged by the emergence of Charles Harris and the performances of Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant in limited playing time last week.

There’s a lot the Lions need to fix in the second level of the defense, but what they’ve been doing up front is a positive, early-year development.

► Q: Who might Dan Campbell be interested in to replace Anthony Lynn if he leaves? — @lionbeard40

► A: It’s beyond premature to speculate, but the source of this question stems from a Jim Trotter report noting USC boosters have reached out to gauge Lynn’s interest in the school’s opening. Not the school, mind you, but the boosters. Could be something, could be nothing, but even if it eventually develops into an offer, odds are Lynn is here until late in the season.

In that case, I suspect Duce Staley would take over as the short-term coordinator and play-caller, further bolstering his own resume as he builds toward a head-coaching opportunity. And maybe that’s the long-term answer, too, I don’t know. I suppose you assess that based on how the trial run goes.

It’s too early to explore options outside the organization, because who knows who will be available come January. But you can bet coach Dan Campbell would be looking for someone cut from the same cloth as Lynn, an experienced leader committed to the run game.

► Q: Who is your favorite player so far this season on this team? — @TripleOGMixx

► A: Favorite is a broad word. In terms of interviews, Jamaal Williams and T.J. Hockenson have both been excellent this year. With Williams, he has such a unique personality, it’s difficult to not enjoy the sessions. And I appreciate Hockenson for the nuanced depth he provides when explaining things about his position.

In terms of which players I enjoy watching the most, D’Andre Swift is at the top of that list. We’re all naturally drawn to playmakers, and his ability to accelerate and make tacklers miss in the open field is easy to appreciate.

► Q: We know that Campbell and his staff are expert motivators and seem to have a knack for getting young guys to play well, but do you think all the mistakes and penalties point to a lack of discipline from this player-friendly coaching staff? — @CraigGaIIagher

► A: No, I don’t think we can draw a correlation here. I look at the types of penalties the Lions draw, and don’t see post-whistle issues that point to an out-of-control roster. The mistakes being made are fairly standard stuff, mostly holding, false starts and a handful of delay-of-game infractions. And I think you should actually be encouraged by the fact that the team has drawn only two pass-interference penalties and one defensive holding through three games.

The most concerning flag the Lions have drawn came when cornerback Jerry Jacobs ran out of bounds to avoid a blocker when in punt coverage, negating a fumble recovery on the play. That’s a rookie mistake, made by a rookie, and points to him not being coached well enough in that gunner role.

In a radio interview with 97.1 on Tuesday morning, Campbell acknowledged that and said it’s a reminder for everyone not to take the fundamentals for granted, noting Jacobs would have them hammered home this week.

Yes, you’re right, the Lions have been sloppier than you’d like to see, overall. But I believe that’s more reflective of a young team working out the kinks than a lack of discipline.

► Q: Has anyone asked the Ford’s if they ever contemplated selling the franchise? — @xamdoctor

► A: Yes, when Martha Firestone Ford and Sheila Hamp Ford, along with team president Rod Wood met with a small group of reporters to explain the decision to bring back Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia for the 2020 season, the topic did come up.

At the time, it was wrapped in a question about Jeff Bezos’ rumored interested. What we were told is that while Bezos had made no inquires, the Fords are approached by interested parties on occasion, but there is zero interest in selling the team.

Like anything, I’m sure that could change with the right circumstances, but I’m not anticipating it any time in the near future.

► Q: Seriously, should we just tune out the team for the next two-plus seasons and turn the TV back on in 2024? — @STLSparty

► A: I’m not the arbiter of what you should do with your Sundays. If you can stomach the inevitable losses this year and probably next, there’s enjoyment to be found in the potential maturation of a young roster into a contender.

But if you want to spend your weekends taking hay rides at the cider mill and make the leap back onto the bandwagon only after it has positive momentum, that’s fine, too.

► Q: Just picking ONE, which do you think the boos toward the Fords were mostly related to: Handling of Calvin Johnson, the current game, decades of no success or something else? Too easy to just say smorgasbord. — @MarkVanBuren

► A: To me, that’s the sound of frustration from decades of futility, far more than any short-term irritation. Nearly every week I get an email from someone letting me know the Fords are the only constant through these lean years, like this is some grand revelation no one has thought to mention before.

Sunday’s scene was unfortunate. Not because fans don’t have the right to boo ownership, because they absolutely do, but because it tainted a moment to honor Johnson, which is what it was about.

It might not be a popular opinion, but I’m not going to judge Hamp for what her father and mother did or did not do during their stints as owner. She had some say in Quinn and Patricia returning their final season, and that move bombed, but the Campbell/Holmes era is really her first attempt to put a stamp on the organization and I’m willing to let it play out.

► Q: It’s only been three games, but who has surprisingly stood out? — @_Kdub21

► A: Offensively, the Lions have been almost exactly what I expected. If anything, Jared Goff’s first half against the Green Bay Packers exceeded what I thought he was capable of doing in Detroit. For me, that opened the door a crack to the idea he might not be a bridge to the next guy.

Defensively, it’s the young pass-rushers, led by Harris, a former first-round pick, as well nickel corner AJ Parker, who has carried his solid preseason performance into the regular season.

► Q: Has Bobby Price earned the spot at cornerback until Melifonwu is back?  — @mikedott11

► A: Earned isn’t the word I’d use. Price made the roster more for potential than his performance. He’s new to the position and he’s laboring through some understandable inconsistencies as he develops not only an understanding of the techniques required to play cornerback, but an understanding of how offenses attack man and zone coverage.

I cannot imagine the Lions would be rolling with him as a starter if they were closer to contention, but they’re not, so it’s a prime opportunity to accelerate his development through experience. His growth through these opportunities will be critical to determining his long-term potential with the franchise.

► Q: Will we be seeing more of Dean Marlowe and less of Will Harris? — @Cesar_D87

► A: If Sunday was any indication, yes, but also less Tracy Walker. Maybe it was game-specific, but the Lions deployed a three-man rotation at safety with Marlowe and Harris playing 76% of snaps and Walker playing 67%.

► Q: Every game I see Swift running up the gut on short yardage. He is supposed to be the speed back and is coming off injury. He had some success last week but isn’t that Williams’ job?  — @SZipperface

► A: If you limit the way you utilize players, defenses can key in on those tendencies. Now, if Swift was like Theo Riddick from a few seasons back, and incapable of producing on runs through the middle of the line, I would understand your concern. But throughout his rookie year, Swift has shown he’s effective, regardless of the assignment.

To your point, I think you want to limit how much you run Swift into the heart of the defense. It’s not just the groin injury that continues to linger, but overall concerns about his durability. That said, I have zero issues with the Lions mixing it up with their two backs, just like I would hope they continue to find ways to get Williams the ball in the passing game. Overlapping skill sets are a good thing at the position.

► Q: Doesn’t seem like Derrick Barnes had much of an impact on Sunday. Do you agree? — @B_Lake007

► A: Yes, but I also didn’t expect a fourth-round rookie making his first start to have much of an impact.

► Q: Given that they have pretty much given up on Collins, can they realistically expect to get anything for him? — @RGharajanloo

► A: Despite perceptions to the contrary, Collins’ value is unchanged by the fact the Lions have removed him from the lineup and publicly announced he was available for trade, In fact, making it known to the 31 other teams he’s on the block is the best way to drum up interest.

That said, we’re talking about a linebacker still owed more than $3 million, who will turn 32 years old in three weeks. Those two factors will limit what kind of return the Lions will get more than anything.

If they can muster a late-round pick, particularly one that has the potential to conditionally improve based on Collins’ playing time, it would be a win.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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