Allen Park — In his pro debut, Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson did some good things — namely, generating three quarterback pressures — but there ended up being more almost-moments than made plays.
There were multiple times when Hutchinson got a hand on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, but couldn’t complete the sack. And on a critical 3rd-and-2 in the closing minutes of the contest, Hutchinson stumbled while in position to tackle Miles Sanders for a loss, allowing the back to escape for a big gain and a back-breaking first-down conversion.
It’s long been said that the speed and intensity of the game pick up between the preseason and the regular season, and Hutchinson experienced that first-hand for the first time against the Eagles, according to coach Dan Campbell.
“The takeaway I had, and I think we all had was, ‘OK, this is what it’s like. This is it. This is the true taste of the NFL, man, adjusting to that caliber athlete,'” Campbell said. “Look, he — honestly, I’m not even worried about him. He’s going to adjust from this. He’s prideful; he’s a pro. I already know that about him as a rookie, I think we all do. So, he’s going to want to better himself; he’s going to learn from this and he will be better.”
Offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who went through his welcome-to-the-NFL experience as a rookie last year, remembers how different his debut felt compared to his second game, so he’s expecting Hutchinson to make noticeable improvements in the near future.
“Oh man, it’s a big difference, just because of the speed,” Sewell said. “That’s the one thing that kinda shocks you in that first game is the speed of the game, and the o-linemen in this league, everybody can move. With Aidan, man, he just needs to keep his head down and keep doing what he’s doing. He’s a great player, so this next game, shoot, he’ll probably go crazy.”
An impressive debut
Overall, the Lions’ defense struggled in the opener, but rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez was a bright spot. According to football analytics website Pro Football Focus, the sixth-round pick was the unit’s highest-graded performer on Sunday.
Campbell confirmed the coaching staff was pleased with Rodriguez’s debut performance.
“I thought he did a nice job,” Campbell said. “There’re a couple of plays I know he wishes he could have back, but for a rookie who went in there and played a substantial role for us, I thought he did a nice job. He was physical, he was aggressive, (had) zero (missed assignments). I mean, he was on top of it now. So, that was good to see.
Rodriguez earned the start, but regularly rotated off the field. He ended up logging 46 defensive snaps (60%), as well as 17 reps on special teams. He finished with six tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage, when he blew up a screen pass.
Finding a groove
Drawing a penalty flag is always frustrating for a player, but the spotlight burns far brighter when you commit the same infraction on consecutive snaps. That’s what happened to Lions guard Logan Stenberg on the opening series against the Eagles, when he drew back-to-back false-start penalties.
It was Stenberg’s first start in three seasons, and knowing the nerves that come with that moment, Sewell tried to calm his teammate down by putting a positive spin on the infractions.
“Those two false starts, to be honest, I kinda smiled at him,” Sewell said. “I was like, ‘Bro, you’re ready to get off the ball. That’s all I see.’ Obviously, everyone’s got a different perspective, but yeah. Just for him to bounce back from those two false starts, he’s going to be money this season.
“…It happened to me,” Sewell said. “I was just telling him I had the same thing, wanting to get off the ball as quick as possible, get the jump on the defensive line and it happens.”
It was a shaky first start for Stenberg, who also allowed multiple quarterback pressures in the contest. That said, he could have some time to sort it out with starter Halapoulivaati Vaitai on injured reserve for at least the next three games and backup guard Tommy Kraemer also nursing a back injury.
Despite failing to secure a single first down during a four-drive stretch in the first half of Sunday’s loss to the Eagles, the Lions’ offense managed to score 35 points in the contest. That scoring burst showcases the unit’s potential a year after the Lions averaged a paltry 19.1 points per game.
“Yeah, we could’ve probably pushed about 50 today,” quarterback Jared Goff said after the game. “I mean we left a lot of points out there. Tip the cap to the Eagles; they’re a damn good team, but we shot ourselves in the foot all day long.”
Running back D’Andre Swift said the offense can be “as good as we want it to be, while Sewell noted, “the sky is the limit.”
The second-year offensive tackle took it a step further, saying the unit’s goal is to score every possession.
“Every time we step out there, each and every drive, we’ve gotta get some type of points, whatever that looks like,” Sewell said.
Last season, the Lions averaged 1.84 points per possession, which ranked 23rd in the league. Against the Eagles, that was up to 3.18 points. The Kansas City Chiefs led the NFL in 2021, averaging 2.81 points per possession.
The Lions placed defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike on injured reserve this weekend, more than five weeks after he was originally sidelined by a back injury. The team had kept him on the active roster to start the season, hoping his rehab would accelerate, but it never reached that point.
“Yeah, it’s still the same issue, and it’s just slow going right now,” Campbell said. “We don’t feel like there’s a setback, but yet it’s just not progressing the way that we would hope.”
By being placed on IR, Onwuzurike is required to miss a minimum of four games and won’t be able to practice during that stretch.