Four Downs: Need to double down on defensive help going forward is evident

Detroit News

Seattle — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 51-29 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

First down

It’s difficult to know how much to react to this game, a late-season West Coast trip, in inclement conditions, with a depleted roster due to injuries and illness. Was this an aberration in the progress the Lions have seemingly made in the second half of the season or the exposing of warts the team has managed to conceal with some good fortune?

Honestly, it’s probably a little bit of both, and a reminder this rebuild wasn’t set up to be a quick fix. But after the way the Seahawks effortlessly moved the ball and lit up the Lumen Field scoreboard, we should acknowledge the next, best step in the process for Detroit should be a heavy offseason investment in the team’s defense.

Even acknowledging reinforcements are coming in form of injured players returning to action in 2022, that presents its own uncertainties. Jeff Okudah and Romeo Okwara should be two of Detroit’s better defensive options, but who really knows how they’ll look after Achilles tears. That injury is known for sapping explosiveness and many are never able to recapture their peak form.

Regardless, between free agency and the draft, Detroit is in position to commit the lion’s share of their resources to upgrading the defense.

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Plenty of F’s to go around in stinker vs. Seahawks

Let’s start with free agency. Assuming the team releases outside linebacker Trey Flowers — which feels like a near-certainty — that leaves the Lions with an estimated $45-50 million in cap space. There will be a few of their own worth re-signing, but the team should be more aggressive in general manager Brad Holmes’ second year, looking for longer-term pieces on the open market, particularly at linebacker and safety.

For example, Green Bay linebacker De’Vondre Campbell offers a prime chance to get one of the league’s surest tacklers in the second level, while poaching a key piece from a division rival.

And if Holmes really wants to swing for the fences, safety Marcus Williams is a playmaker in the early stages of his prime who could be a premium asset with schematic familiarity, as opposed to stopgaps like Michael Brockers and Alex Anzalone.

Then, in the draft, with all due respect to targeting the best player available, the Lions should modify it slightly to targeting the best defensive player available with at least three of the team’s first four selections.

The easiest part of that equation will be early in the process, where at least one premium edge rusher, Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux, will be available with Detroit’s top-two pick they locked up on Sunday.

And while taking a wide receiver somewhere in that mix remains good business, Holmes should otherwise be thinking defense, defense, defense. That means linebackers like Devin Lloyd and Nakobe Dean, safeties such as Jaquan Brisker and Brandon Joseph, or even bolstering more crowded areas on the depth chart with a premium chip like Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal or cornerback Roger McCreary, if they’re still on the board when the Lions are on the clock.

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn can coach and is an expert motivator. It’s time to give him a serious inject of talent and see what he can do.

Second down

The second round of the draft should be an excellent place to land starting-caliber talent, but it’s been a sore spot for the Lions dating back at least two decades. While there have been rare exceptions — Darius Slay and D’Andre Swift to name a couple — the Lions have seen GM after GM inexplicably fail in this round in the draft.

And while it’s premature to bury any rookie’s long-term potential after just one season, we can certainly acknowledge defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike has been one of the biggest disappointments of the 2021 season.

We could point to the fact that Onwuzurike opted out of the 2021 college season, but that hasn’t been a problem for many other early-round draft picks, including Detroit’s first-rounder Penei Sewell. But what about the troubling back injury that sidelined Onwuzurike for a few weeks during training camp? Yeah, that was some valuable developmental time missed, but it’s been months since it appeared on the injury report, at least temporarily alleviating concerns about the issue.

No, at this stage of the season, we can judge development and performance beyond outside factors, and it hasn’t been close to good enough for the defensive lineman out of the University of Washington. Playing 36 defensive snaps in his return to the state where he made his name — his second-largest workload of the season — the issues that have plagued Onwuzurike all season were magnified.

Strength and technique tops the list. He’s routinely getting out-leveraged and overpowered at the point of attack, making him a liability against the run. And as a pass rusher, where he was supposed to provide an immediate boost to one of the roster’s glaring weaknesses, he came into the game having generated pressure on the opposing quarterback only three times on 157 rush reps, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s staggeringly inefficient.

Again, and with emphasis, this isn’t an attempt to label Onwuzurike a bust. It’s too early for that chatter. But he has a lot of work to do in the offseason to start living up to his potential so we don’t have to have those conversations a year or two down the road.

Third down

In May, I enjoyed breaking down some of Amon-Ra St. Brown’s college film. It gave me an opportunity to get to know the player before ever seeing him put on a Lions uniform. And looking back at those notes now, many of the observations have carried into the NFL.

Versatile, excellent blocker, has knack for finding open space against zone coverage, best at creating separation from the slot. Yep, all those things remain true.

What’s not in that scouting report is a conclusion, although I know I shared those thoughts in some radio interviews shortly after it published. To be fully transparent, I found Holmes floating a comparison to Cooper Kupp outlandish. I saw a good player, but with a pretty clear ceiling with his production. A No. 3 receiver seemed like the best-case scenario, which would still be a win for a fourth-round draft pick.

This is my mea culpa. St. Brown is blowing all expectations out of the water and wasting little time doing so. On Sunday, he became the first rookie in NFL history to catch eight passes in five consecutive games. The only Lions receiver to do that at any stage of their career is some guy named Calvin Johnson.

And while St. Brown gets the benefit of an extra game to accomplish the feat, he’s a sure bet to end the year as the most-productive rookie pass-catcher in franchise history, needing just 15 yards to pass Roy Williams’ output from 2004.

In my opinion, Sunday was St. Brown’s most impressive performance yet. That’s not because he set a new high in yards from scrimmage, but because he did it as the obvious No. 1 option with Josh Reynolds and T.J. Hockenson out of the lineup.

Last week was filled with conversation about St. Brown’s potential to be a true No. 1 receiver, and while one month, or even one season doesn’t allow us to reach those conclusions, these are the types of performances that will ultimately make the case.

Whether that ends up coming to fruition or not, position coach Antwaan Randle El made a point this week that every Batman needs a Robin. The Lions still need talent at the position. It’s the primary weakness of the offense going forward, so as mentioned above, using one of those early draft picks to create their own Dynamic Duo should remain a priority.

Fourth down

All week, the Lions led us to believe D’Andre Swift would be full-go in his return from a shoulder injury that sidelined him four games. Instead, his playing-time percentage hovered near a season-low and he recorded just six touches on his 36 snaps.

That’s a tough break for fantasy football owners, who rolled the dice on the dual-threat for their championship games this week.

But it begs the question, why bring him back? I know the Lions coaches saw the last two games as an opportunities for growth, but how much growth is to be had with six touches? And worse yet, one of those touches, in the red zone, saw Swift upended, landing hard on his head, neck and shoulder.

Props to any player who wants to be on the field, regardless of their team’s circumstances, but Swift remains an integral component to 2022 and 2023. The decision to take him out of bubble wrap was already made, but if he’s going to play in the finale against Green Bay, the Lions might as well stick to this low-volume usage to reduce risk of further injury.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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