Four Downs: Channeling their anger might be Lions’ best course forward

Detroit News

Chicago — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 24-14 loss to the Chicago Bears.

First Down

The Lions entered this season with a why-not-us attitude, trying to ignore the outside expectations. But there’s a reason, or maybe a dozen, why those expectations were what they were. So far, they’ve come to fruition in the team’s 0-4 start.

Sure, Detroit has been better than anticipated in areas, and there’s no reason to feel any differently about the franchise’s long-term vision. But presently, they’re just one of two teams — the Jacksonville Jaguars being the other — without a notch in the win column.

Now the challenge for coach Dan Campbell and company is to find a way to motivate his team through the valley of an ugly rebuild, while continuing to grow a culture and foundation.

After the game, quarterback Jared Goff talked about the importance of keeping hope afloat during this difficult stretch.

“We need to make sure we don’t go numb to it and keep that hope, keep that faith that we’ve had,” Goff said. “It’s hard, right? It’s hard. We’re 0-4. We’ve lost some tough ones. We’ve shown some fight. We’ve shown some good things but ultimately, it hasn’t been close to good enough yet.”

More: Wojo: Lions collapse again as Dan Campbell’s gambles fall short

Of course, good luck selling hope and faith to this fan base. Those who have stuck around, which is an admirable percentage, all they’ve had is hope and faith for more than six decades. That’s not going to make it any easier to stomach this team stumbling it’s way to two or three wins.

But another emotion coming out of Sunday might have more appeal. It’s another one that’s relatable for those who use their free time to watch this product: Anger.

Coach Dan Campbell noted in his postgame comments that anger was more present than frustration in the locker room after the game. And Goff, whose public persona screams laid back, hinted there’s fuel to be found in that anger.

“Yeah, I think you just get to the point where  there’s no longer like, oh, we did these things good,” Goff said, dismissing talk of moral victories in defeat. “You get to the point where it’s like, we still lost and you’re not happy about it. And, yeah, maybe a pissed off team will execute a little bit better. And that’s me included. How can we be better next week? Maybe being pissed off will be the answer.”

Outside of demanding grit and effort, the Lions are a long way from establishing an identity under Campbell. Playing with an edge, playing with anger, that carries some appeal.

Second Down

In the first quarter, the Lions suffered a brutal blow when edge defender Romeo Okwara went out with an Achilles injury. That leaves the defense without its most productive pass-rusher rusher from last season, which presents a significant problem for a unit that has struggled to affect the passer in recent seasons.

That showed up again against Chicago, when the Lions mustered a single sack, a week after the Bears allowed quarterback Justin Fields to be dropped behind the line nine times against the Cleveland Browns. Embarrassingly, the Lions didn’t even register that many quarterback pressures.

But here’s the thing about a good pass rush, it’s built upon an effective run defense. If you can consistently slow an opponent on first and second down, it puts them in those third-and-longs where they must throw the ball and your defensive front can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.

Unfortunately for the Lions, they didn’t come close to doing that on Sunday. They allowed the Bears to run all over them from the opening kickoff and they finished with 188 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

Without Okwara and, more importantly in this facet of the game, Trey Flowers, Detroit proved unable to set their edges. Backup edge rushers Charles Harris and Austin Bryant, who have shown some juice in the pass rush, were repeatedly bullied by the Bears up front, regularly losing their gap assignments.

Most good defensive performances start with the ability to slow down an opponents ground game. We saw that in action a week ago against the Ravens. If the Lions have any hope of their unit turning a corner, this is where it has to start.

Third Down

The other half of the defensive equation is the secondary. For the second consecutive week, the Lions were gouged by big plays in the pass game as Chicago completed five throws for 20 or more yards. That included a 64-yard reception setting up one touchdown and 28- and 32-yard grabs on a second possession that resulted in another. And on all three of those receptions, converted safety Bobby Price looked to be partially or fully responsible for the coverage assignment.

According to data tracked by Pro Football Focus, Price gave up five catches on six throws his way for 149 of Fields’ 209 passing yards. Even more troubling, all that damage came playing just 13 coverage snaps. And this a week after he played the wrong coverage on the fourth-and-19 conversion that set up Baltimore’s game-winning field goal.

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Detroit terrible in trenches, subpar (again) in secondary

The reality is Price shouldn’t be in this position. Some of it is out of the Lions control, having lost Jeff Okudah and Ifeatu Melifonwu to injury in the past few weeks. That said, the lack of veteran depth at cornerback was discussed before the season started and now the coaching staff is forced to run out a second-year player who converted to cornerback only a couple weeks before the season started and is clearly outmatched.

This isn’t to say Price’s career is doomed and he should be immediately booted off the roster. There’s plenty of physical gifts worthy of developing and he’s shown plenty of potential on special teams. But that development should be happening on the practice field, or, at the very least, situationally in games.

In the meantime, the Lions need to look elsewhere to fill those starting snaps, whether that’s undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs, who is equally inexperienced, but at least played cornerback in college, or even veteran Daryl Worley, a former third-round pick who recently signed with the team and debuted in a sub-package role against the Bears.

Fourth Down

Ending on a positive note, there was one development I particularly liked from Sunday’s offensive performance: It was encouraging to see how involved Detroit’s receivers were in the game plan. Quintez Cephus and Amon-Ra St. Brown combined for more than 150 yards, while Kalif Raymond found the end zone twice and very easily could have had a third scoring grab if Goff didn’t overthrow his open receiver down the seam in the second quarter.

Coming into the Chicago game, the Lions offense had flashed, playing a good half against Green Bay and Baltimore. But even during those stretches, they were over-reliant on tight end T.J. Hockenson and the running back tandem of Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift. If they were ever going to unlock the offense’s full potential, they needed to find a way to work the ball to receivers more and achieve greater balance. They did that against the Bears.

Yes, the Lions finished with 14 points, which isn’t close to good enough. But against a good defense, they were in position to put points on the board on six of nine possessions. That’s a promising development.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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