Detroit Lions film review: Aidan Hutchinson’s debut a dud, but don’t be down on rookie

Detroit Free Press

Aidan Hutchinson’s NFL debut was a dud, but the Detroit Lions have no reason to be down on their rookie defensive end.

“Honestly, I’m not even worried about him,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Monday. “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.”

Hutchinson was largely a non-factor in the Lions’ 38-35 season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. He was credited with one assisted tackle in the game and did not make any of the impact plays that drew the Lions to him with the No. 2 pick of April’s draft.

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Hutchinson’s performance was disappointing coming off a strong preseason, especially when compared to No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker, who had a sack, an interception and four tackles in his debut with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But after watching all 69 snaps Hutchinson played for my first film review of the season, I saw flashes of the playmaking ability he showed at Michigan and, importantly for a rookie in his first NFL game, few mistakes.

Hutchinson’s lone tackle came on a Kenneth Gainwell run early in the third quarter, when he shed a Lane Johnson block at left end to sandwich Gainwell at the line of scrimmage with Charles Harris. Harris, coming unblocked off right end, was the first defender in on the play.

Statistically, I thought Hutchinson could have been credited with two more tackles, though neither would have changed the perception of his performance. He was the first defender to touch Jalen Hurts when the Eagles quarterback slid after a 10-yard scramble late in the first quarter, and he was in on another pileup at the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter when Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs were credited with the stop.

More significant than his lone tackle was the way Hutchinson rebounded from a negative one play earlier.

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The Eagles ran at Hutchinson on the fourth play of the second half, when Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert bullied Hutchinson to clear a path for a 7-yard run by Gainwell. The Eagles gave Gainwell the ball again on the next play, and Hutchinson slipped Johnson’s block to get in the backfield.

Overall, Hutchinson was solid as a true run defender, even on a day the Eagles gained 216 yards on the ground. He appeared to be assignment sound, setting a firm edge when that was his responsibility and playing the inside dive when he had a linebacker filling behind him on the edge. And his motor never was an issue in pursuit even though he played more snaps than all but three other Lions defenders.

Hutchinson did have two more negative run plays, by my estimation, and they came at critical moments in the game.

Johnson turned then pancaked Hutchinson on Miles Sanders’ 24-yard run in the third quarter, when the Eagles again ran right at the rookie coming out of a timeout. Gainwell scored three plays later to give Philadelphia a 31-14 lead.

And Hutchinson had a chance to stop Sanders on his game-clinching 24-yard run just before the two-minute warning, when he came unblocked off left end but stopped his feet and tripped as he lunged at the running back. Derrick Barnes and McNeill also had a chance to reach Sanders on the play.

“He just stopped his feet,” Campbell said. “Just keep running your feet through it. There again, he wasn’t the only one that could have been better on that play.”

Hutchinson’s prowess at Michigan was as a pass rusher, and he had little impact in that department Sunday.

Playing everywhere on the defensive line — I charted 29 snaps at right defensive end, 21 at left end and 16 as an inside rusher in sub mostly sub package situations — Hutchinson had three pressures, though at least one seemed to have come on a designed run.

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The Eagles appeared to target Hutchinson in their opening-game script, using his aggressiveness and inexperience against him. Hurts ran to Hutchinson’s side on a read-option keeper on the Eagles’ first play from scrimmage, when Hutchinson’s responsibility appeared to be to play the handoff. On the next play, left tackle Jordan Mailata gave Hutchinson an inside rush lane. Hutchinson shot out of his stance and toward Hurts, who quickly tucked the ball and sprinted around Mailata’s backside for an 11-yard gain.

Hutchinson had a good inside bull rush four plays later against right guard Isaac Seumalo on third-and-15, but he couldn’t corral Hurts, who sprinted away from an attempted arm tackle for 16 yards and a first down.

Hurts ran the ball six times in the first quarter for 50 yards. Five of those carries (and 48 of the yards) came toward Hutchinson’s side of the line.

“The takeaway I have and I think we all had was, ‘OK, this is what it’s like. This is it. This is — this is the true taste of the NFL,’ and just, man, adjusting to that caliber athlete in a full game,” Campbell said. “Now, there’s certainly some things to where it looks like, ‘Man, he’s got to make that play.’ But he needs a little help, too. If we rush and close the edge a little bit, then it boxes in that space between where he’s at and where the quarterback’s at, so there’s a little bit of that, too.”

Hutchinson is too good a pass rusher to go without a sack for long. He will have more opportunities against less mobile quarterbacks, worse offensive lines and teams that hold onto the ball longer in the coming weeks, and he and Harris have the makings of a formidable nickel rush duo.

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Against the Eagles, Hutchinson frequently lined up in a tight split next to Harris in sub packages. Going forward, that alignment should give defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive line coach Todd Wash the ability to apply pressure out of exotic looks and by running confusing defensive line games.

Ultimately, Hutchinson’s debut was rather forgettable, but that does not mean his career will be.

“He’ll be better next week,” Campbell said. “He needed this and they all needed it — and most rookies, that’s the way it goes. You get into your first game and it’s just a little different.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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