Five questions about the Detroit Lions’ defense heading into the 2022 season

Detroit News

Allen Park — Following some schematic tweaks and a couple key additions through the draft and free agency, here are five questions facing the Detroit Lions’ defense heading into the season.

► How much better can the pass rush be? 

Everything starts up front, and it’s no secret Detroit’s pass rush has lacked the ability to consistently pressure the quarterback the past few seasons.

Dating to 2018, the Lions have finished each year among the bottom seven in pressure rate, the frequency at which they either hurry, hit or sack the opposing quarterback on a pass play.

Predictably, that’s translated to fewer sacks and fewer turnovers than most of the league’s teams. The Lions have ranked 30th, 26th and 29th in sacks the past three seasons and 24th, 21st, 29th in takeaways during that same stretch.

So what did the Lions do this offseason? First and foremost, they’ve tweaked their defensive scheme, partially abandoning the lingering elements of the gap-control style former coach Matt Patricia installed up front in favor of a more attacking style, particularly on the edges.

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But while the philosophical change can help, the team also needed talent. Enter Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft. He’s coming off a season where he set the University of Michigan’s single-season sack record, racking up 14 in 2021.

It’s excessive to expect a rookie to be a cure-all, but he’ll need to be part of the solution. On the practice field, he’s been a force, whether rushing from the edge or inside alignments. And in limited action (11 snaps) the first two preseason games, he had a pressure and drew a holding call. So there are reasons to believe he can have an immediate impact.

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Other promising developments are the return of Charles Harris, who led the Lions in sacks and quarterback pressures last season, the breakout potential of Austin Bryant, who has had as good of a training camp as could have been imagined, and the schematic changes opening the door for 330-pound defensive tackle Alim McNeill to focus more on penetrating the pocket.

We’re less optimistic about Levi Onwuzurike, the pass-rushing interior lineman who is battling a back injury for the second consecutive year, as well as Romeo Okwara, who seems pretty far away from returning as he rehabs his way back from last year’s torn Achilles. But if either ends up contributing in a meaningful way, it would be a cherry on top of the progress the Lions are attempting to make up front.

What does success look like? How about middle-of-the-pack production? That could mean around 10 more sacks and 40 more total pressures than a year ago, which should lead to defensive improvements, across the board.

Where’s the beef? 

Football can be a tricky balance. Put emphasis on one thing, say more aggressively getting after the quarterback, you risk losing focus on something else.

Looking over the roster as the team entered training camp, and there was a noticeable lack of size throughout Detroit’s front seven pieces. Among the interior defensive linemen, only McNeill tipped the scales more than 300 pounds. And at linebacker, the emphasis on speed and athleticism has left the team with a smaller group there, too. Projected starters Alex Anzalone and Malcolm Rodriguez both check in under 240 pounds.

Obviously there are plenty of examples of undersized players thriving across the NFL — Aaron Donald, anyone? — but it’s trickier to navigate some of those concerns when its several such players sharing the field. And even though the NFL has morphed into a pass-heavy league the past couple of decades, stopping the run remains critical to controlling games by making your opponent one-dimensional.

The Lions were already a below-average run defense last season, allowing opponents to gain 4.4 yards per carry. With an emphasis on attacking up front, and the aforementioned lack of size, the individual pieces throughout the unit need to be highly disciplined with their run-gap assignments to keep opponents from having consistent success on early downs, setting up favorable second- and third-down situations.

The first preseason game, where the starters saw time and struggled, highlighted the validity of the concern. And with a trio of accomplished workhorse backs in the division — Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones and David Montgomery — it’s something that can’t be taken for granted.

How will Okudah respond to adversity? 

The first two years of Jeff Okudah’s career have gone nothing like he or the franchise hoped after the cornerback was selected with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2020 draft.

As a rookie, he was limited to nine games. In those appearances, opponents picked on him, targeting him 50 times in coverage. And on those targets, he allowed 38 catches for 579 yards.

When he came back for his second season, he appeared to be in a good place, both mentally and physically, ready to make a massive jump in his development. But things quickly went awry. In the season opener, he allowed a long touchdown, got caught on camera getting chewed out by his position coach, then tore his Achilles tendon, ending his year after playing a measly 48 snaps.

To his credit, Okudah didn’t wallow in self pity. After getting over the initial shock and depression of the injury, he went to work, diligently pushing through each stage of his rehab to ensure he was ready for this year’s training camp.

And while the Lions have made him earn a starting job, signs point to him having done enough to fend off converted safety Will Harris in their camp battle. On the practice field and in the preseason games, there have been some struggles mixed with flashes of the talent that made Okudah a top-five draft pick.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign has been his physicality, both at the line of scrimmage and coming downhill in run support. That proves he’s cleared some important mental hurdles as he’s worked his way back from one of the most devastating injuries a football player can suffer.

It’s probably reasonable to lower the bar a bit with expectations. Quickness and burst, two critical traits to a cornerback’s success, don’t usually return immediately following an Achilles injury. That said, if he’s going to start, the Lions can’t afford for Okudah to be the weak link in the secondary.

► Where does Jacobs fit?

In late August, the Lions placed four players on injured lists that will keep them out of the lineup for at least the first four games. Noticeably absent from that group was cornerback Jerry Jacobs, who has been working his way back from a torn ACL, suffered in December.

One of the brightest spots in an otherwise dismal season, the undrafted rookie won over teammates with his infectious enthusiasm and aggressive on-field performance. Physical in every aspect of his job, he limited opposing receivers to 27 receptions the 42 times he was targeted in coverage and rarely ceded much damage after the catch.

Jacobs had a firm grasp on a starting job at the time of his injury, but with Okudah’s return and Harris moving over from safety, it’s unclear where Jacobs will find playing time once he’s medically cleared. Then again, with the injury rate in the defensive backfield, oftentimes the depth chart ends up sorting itself out.

But assuming everyone remains relatively healthy, it would be interesting to see the Lions give Jacobs a look as a nickel cornerback. Veteran Mike Hughes is obviously capable and competent at that spot, and rookie Chase Lucas is waiting in the wings, but Jacobs’ skill set and demeanor make him a compelling fit, adding size and aggression to a role that requires you to cover a tight end one-on-one and regularly charge into the fire to help stop the run.

Guys get replaced all the time after suffering a long-term injury, but it’s difficult to see Jacobs quietly fade away.

► Can Rodriguez be a long-term solution at LB? 

Like we mentioned with Hutchinson, it’s a dangerous game to expect too much from a rookie, but Rodriguez has made it easy to forget he’s prepping for his debut season.

A sixth-round draft pick, he’s instantly become a favorite of the coaching staff for his professional approach, rapid grasping of the playbook and steady playmaking on the field. All together, it’s put him in line to start the season opener, which is an extremely rare feat for a Day 3 draft pick.

Rodriguez’s college production is eye-catching. As a fifth-year senior in 2021, he racked up 129 tackles (16 for a loss), three sacks, four pass breakups, four forced fumbles and an interception. His high-level instincts have him always around the ball, and his background as a championship-caliber wrestler and converted safety have provided him a unique, well-rounded skill set to perform any assignment you could ask of a linebacker.

The biggest question mark was always his size, but every time he hip tosses a guard on the practice field, you feel silly for thinking his 6-foot, 230-pound frame would be an issue.

If his training camp isn’t a mirage, it could solve one of Detroit’s long-lingering holes on the roster. Since the departures of Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy, the Lions have struggled to find a stud performer in the second level of the defense, cycling through guys like Kyle Van Noy, Tahir Whitehead, Jarrad Davis, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai and Jamie Collins without finding a consistent playmaker.

The idea Detroit general manager Brad Holmes stumbled upon a possible solution in the latter stages of the draft would be all the more remarkable.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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