Detroit Lions season preview: Questions abound on defense at LB, in secondary

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions open the regular season Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Here is a position by position look at the Lions’ defense and special teams for 2022:

Defensive line

Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash offered an easy-to-understand explanation of the Lions’ transition to an even-man defensive front and what it means for the team this summer. “We’re kind of an attack and react,” Wash said. “We still don’t run around blocks. We’re not going to create vertical seams like you do with a lot of true attack fronts. So we’re kind of a happy medium. Last year we were all read, and then this year we’re attack and react. For us, we’re going to attack right through the edge of people and if they block us, then we’ve got to cover them up so that’s kind of the base philosophy with us up front.”

The Lions have the personnel on the edge to create more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, though they lack size and true playmakers in the middle of their line. Charles Harris had a strong camp coming off a career-high 7.5-sack season and seems poised for an even better 2022. He’s joined on the edge by rookie Aidan Hutchinson, whose relentless motor should make him a disruptive force. Hutchinson is bound to experience some growing pains, but he might be the Lions’ best defensive player as a rookie. If Austin Bryant can be a menace with his long arms as the No. 3 pass rusher, the Lions should improve significantly on their 27th-ranked sack rate (5.5%) from a season ago.

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Alim McNeill is an anchor at nose tackle who the Lions believe has more to offer as a pass rusher. McNeill had two sacks and three tackles for loss as a rookie, and those numbers should improve in the new scheme. The second defensive tackle spot could be an issue as Michael Brockers barely made an impact last season and Levi Onwuzurike missed most of camp with a back injury. Brockers remains a starter and team captain, but the Lions will use a heavy rotation inside. John Cominsky can play three technique or strongside defensive end, the Lions claimed Benito Jones off waivers from the Miami Dolphins for run-stopping help, and second-round pick Josh Paschal should return from sports hernia surgery sometime next month.

Linebackers

The Lions have significant concerns in their back seven, though they have taken the sum-is-greater-than-the-parts approach to their linebacking corps.

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Alex Anzalone was a full-time starter last season for the first time in his career and responded with a career-high 78 tackles. Anzalone is a favorite of coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn for his leadership skills and defensive knowledge. He’s ticketed for every down duty to start the year, though young linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes have more potential as flash players.

Rodriguez is the favorite to claim the second inside linebacker job after his impressive camp, but he, Barnes and Chris Board all should see playing time in the middle. Barnes is a thumper, though he does not bring the same natural instincts that Rodriguez does to the position. Board played primarily on third downs and in the red zone for the Baltimore Ravens last season and could have a similar role with the Lions. Top outside linebacker Julian Okwara missed most of camp with a lower-body injury. He figures to have his biggest impact as a pass rusher coming off a five-sack season.

Defensive backs

The Lions’ concerns in the secondary are even more pronounced than they are at linebacker given how atrocious they were defending the pass (last in yards per pass play against) last season.

Amani Oruwariye had a breakout six-interception season in 2021 and returns as the most accomplished playmaker in a young defensive backfield. Oruwariye, though, is not considered a true No. 1 by NFL standards and will play primarily as the team’s right cornerback this fall. Jeff Okudah beat out converted safety Will Harris for the left cornerback job. Okudah has much to prove a year after rupturing his Achilles tendon. He progressed steadily throughout training camp, but has been a favorite target of opposing quarterbacks to this point in his career. Mike Hughes and Harris should play in nickel and dime packages, and Jerry Jacobs, who started nine games last season, is due back from his torn ACL next month.

Harris can fill in at safety in a pinch, but the Lions will enter the season with Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott as starters at the position. Elliott brings physicality to the position, while Walker has taken on more of a leadership role after signing a three-year deal to stay in Detroit this offseason. The Lions have two unproven backups at safety in Juju Hughes and rookie Kerby Joseph, so keeping the injury-prone Elliott healthy is paramount to the secondary’s success.

Special teams

The Lions had one of the best overall special teams units in the NFL last season, a function both of personnel and of special teams coordinator Dave Fipp’s aggressive approach to the kicking game.

Jack Fox saw his net punting average tick down last season after a Pro Bowl appearance in 2020, but he actually averaged more gross yards per punt (49.2 vs. 49.1) in 2021. However you cut it, Fox is one of the most reliable punters in the NFL. The Lions aren’t quite as steady on the place-kicking side, though Austin Seibert made a respectable 10 of 12 field goals before an injury cut short his season last year. Seibert survived a camp challenge from Riley Patterson. He has a strong leg, but is just an 82% kicker for his career.

Kalif Raymond is back as the Lions’ primary punt returner, but the team will break in a new kick returner this fall. Craig Reynolds is the favorite to handle those duties after the Lions cut Godwin Igwebuike. Lions general manager Brad Holmes said rookie Jameson Williams could find his way into the special teams mix as well, once he returns from knee surgery later this season. Board, Rodriguez, Barnes, Josh Woods and cornerback Bobby Price should be core coverage players in the kick and punt game.

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

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