Detroit Lions OTA observations: Aidan Hutchinson, pass rush look savage

Detroit Free Press

After three straight years of struggling to get meaningful pressure on opposing quarterbacks, there is reason to believe the Detroit Lions will have a significantly better — maybe even good — pass rush this fall.

The Lions have made schematic and personnel changes to their defense, moving from an odd- to even-man front and drafting Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal in the first two rounds; the fruits of those moves were on display during a revealing end-of-game period at Thursday’s organized team activities.

For the second time in as many open workouts this spring, Lions coach Dan Campbell closed his team period with an end-of-game situation that was dominated by the defense.

The Lions offense took possession at its own 38-yard line, trailing, 24-20, with 1 minute on the clock. In need of a touchdown to “win,” both the first- and second-team offense came up well short of the end zone.

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Jared Goff led the first-team offense to one first down, converting a fourth-and-1 dime over the middle to Josh Reynolds after he was flushed out of the pocket on third down, then took a sack two plays later to end the “game.”

Hutchinson, the No. 2 pick of the draft, was one of several defensive linemen harassing Goff on the series, but it was Jashon Cornell who beat Penei Sewell on the period-ending play.

When the second-team offense and defense squared off, the defense produced two would-be sacks, with two defensive linemen pressuring Tim Boyle on second down and Bruce Hector delivering the would-be game-clinching sack two plays later on fourth-and-5.

“Last year definitely wasn’t up to par,” said Julian Okwara, who finished second on the team with five sacks in 2021. “I think we were in the bottom five of the league in terms of sacks, so I think this year we just really got to turn it up a notch and it started a couple weeks ago. It started when we were doing get-off drills when we were just out here for 30 minutes doing workouts. So I think it starts there and just be able to build that foundation from Day 1.”

Okwara is playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role in the Lions’ new defense and should compete for the starting job at strong-side linebacker.

Hutchinson worked some with the first-team defense Thursday after playing exclusively in a backup role (and dominating) last week, and Charles Harris, Michael Brockers, Romeo Okwara and Paschal give the Lions an assortment of options at the edge rush position.

None of those players has ever had more than 7.5 sacks in a season in the NFL, but the Lions believe their combination of pass rushers, plus defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn’s aggressive mindset, will help them create havoc defensively this fall.

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There is a caveat that comes with any spring performance, of course. Players aren’t in pads yet and the offense Thursday was playing without left tackle Taylor Decker, tight end T.J. Hockenson and rookie receiver Jameson Williams.

But if early returns are any indication, general manager Brad Holmes’ focus on building through the trenches should pay off.

“It’s really just being relentless in our rush and making sure we’re getting there,” Okwara said. “We got big expectations this year.”

More from Thursday’s practice

• Campbell said he wanted an immediate starter out of the No. 2 overall pick, and it appears the Lions landed one in Hutchinson. Last week, Hutchinson was so dominant playing with the third-team defense that the third-team offense could barely move the ball in an end-of-half situation.

On Thursday, he played in a backup capacity — Charles Harris, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill and Michael Brockers started along the defensive front, with Julian Okwara at strong-side linebacker — but lined up at both left and right end with the No. 1 defense.

Hutchinson is a tireless worker, practicing hand moves by himself  during down times in position drills, and should have a significant role as a rookie.

“Has a lot of juice to him. You can see it already,” Brockers said. “He’s just going to keep getting better and that’s what’s the scary thing about him. He’s a guy who’s ready to learn. He’s like a sponge. He’ll pick up everything. He has his own little niches about him, but I’m very excited to have him on this team and on this D-line.”

• Along with Hockenson, Decker and Williams, Paschal, nose tackle John Penisini, cornerbacks Jerry Jacobs (ACL) and Ifeatu Melifonwu and rookie tight end James Mitchell (ACL) were among the nonparticipants in Thursday’s practice. Jeff Okudah went through walk-through and individual drills in his return from a ruptured Achilles, and Natrez Patrick did some running on the side with trainers during the individual period.

• Asked about his brother’s recovery from his Achilles, Julian Okwara “Romeo’s doing great,” but declined to share further details. The elder Okwara spent part of last fall around the team while recovering from his injury, but has not been spotted at either open practice.

• Hutchinson isn’t the only rookie who had an elevated role Thursday. With Melifonwu out, third-round pick Kerby Joseph took second-team defensive reps at safety and had an interception off Tim Boyle in team period on a pass intended for Trinity Benson.

• Joseph and Melifonwu will compete for the third safety spot, as Will Harris looks more and more comfortable at the cornerback position.

Harris, starting at left cornerback in Okudah’s absence, had a nice breakup on a pass intended for Amon-Ra St. Brown in seven-on-seven drills and just missed a pick on a completion to Reynolds a few plays later. Harris could start at slot cornerback (ahead of AJ Parker) once Okudah is healthy, but he is clearly one of the Lions’ top defensive backs in early June.

• Check out this drill Lions quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell put his QBs through Thursday. Brunell shouted out which opening he wanted his quarterback to hit as they made their way through a series of bags on the ground. Goff connected on three straight while I was watching, impressive accuracy considering the opening was about 14 by 11 inches.

• Benson didn’t make much of an impact in his first season with the Lions last year, but he had the catch of the day Thursday, laying out to haul in a Boyle pass during seven-on-seven drills.

• The Lions will have several strong candidates for the No. 3 running back job, including Godwin Igwebuike and Craig Reynolds. But it was Jermar Jefferson who stood out Thursday. A seventh-round pick out of Oregon State last year, Jefferson was a factor in the pass game during team drills, catching three passes in an eight-play span with the second- and third-team offense. Jefferson’s receptions came on check-downs to the flat and screens, but if he can provide anything on special teams this fall he could earn a gameday roster spot.

• A couple hundred fans took in Thursday’s practice, an experience the Lions offered to returning season-ticket holders as part of their renewal package. It wasn’t quite a training camp atmosphere, but I heard from one fan who attended Wednesday’s practice (before it moved inside because of rain) who said he appreciated the intimacy of the experience.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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