Finishing tackles a point of emphasis as Lions try to close out games

Detroit News

Allen Park — If the Detroit Lions are going to start finishing games, they have to start finishing plays.

In the Lions’ 38-35 loss last Sunday, Philadelphia faced a 3rd-and-2 from its own 27-yard-line. Miles Sanders took the handoff and had nowhere to go. And then, suddenly, No. 2-overall pick Aidan Hutchinson fell at his feet; second-year linebacker Derrick Barnes rolled off his shoulder; and when the dust settled, there was Sanders, getting up from a 24-yard run that all but handed the Eagles a win.

Against all odds, the Lions on Sunday nearly erased a 17-point deficit against the Eagles. Somewhat predictably, the Achilles’ heel was tackling. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn addressed that play — and several others — on Thursday.

“Those things showed up quite a bit,” Glenn said. “You take a look at some of the other runs, where, man, you have him stopped cold, and you have him in your grasp, and then — and I’m not just talking about (Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts), I’m talking about the running back, too, man, then he escapes for 20-yard runs. Those are the things we’ve got to clean up a bit,” Glenn said.

The Lions in 2021 led the league in missed tackles (132). They had the 10th-most missed tackles in Week 1, with seven. Despite that, the main reason for optimism, Glenn said, was that his defense was usually in position to make the play — they just didn’t.

And that includes Hutchinson, who head coach Dan Campbell said saw a completely different level of live competition than he saw in training camp and preseason.

“The takeaway I had and I think we all had was, ‘OK, this is what it looks like. This is it. This is the true taste of the NFL,’” Campbell said. “And just, man, adjusting to that caliber athlete, full game.”

Campbell added that he thinks the dynamic nature of Hurts’ ability hurt the Lions’ ability to finish tackles and that his team will be better equipped to face a quarterback of Hurts’ ilk the next time around.

“First of all, we can’t stop our feet on the guy and it doesn’t matter that he’s the quarterback, like, you have to finish on the quarterback. If he’s running with the football, you can’t worry about, ‘Is he going down? Is he not? How is he going to run this?’” Campbell said. “…I’m not trying to make excuses, but I think it’s something that — now we’ve seen it, we’re going to be better for it.”

Rodriguez makes honor roll

Forget missed tackles; we now shift our attention to missed assignments, of which rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez had none, according to Campbell and Glenn.

“There’s 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,” Campbell said of Rodriguez, who started in Week 1 after being taken as a sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma State in this year’s draft. “He was physical, he was aggressive, zero (missed assignments), I mean, he was on top of it now. So, that was good to see.”

Rodriguez played 46 snaps (60%) of snaps on defense and 17 (55%) on special teams. He finished with six tackles, including a tackle for loss, en route to becoming the first Lions rookie linebacker since Ernie Sims (2006) to have at least five tackles and one tackle for loss in his NFL debut.

Glenn added that zero missed assignments in Rodriguez’s debut is impressive, “especially at that position.” Now, the objective for Rodriguez is to start recognizing when an offense is trying to fool him.

“You just try to continue to get him looks as far as NFL football is concerned, because sometimes, man, like these O-linemen or these quarterbacks, they’re going to try and do things now, since they know how you play, because you’re a fast reactor,” Glenn said.

“They’re going to try things to get your eyes, and that goes with what you were saying about (the Commanders). A lot of eye candy. Alright, a lot of eye candy to just run simple plays.”

Okudah up for the challenge

Small wins are turning into bigger ones — just like defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant hoped for Jeff Okudah this summer.

Okudah was solid in his season debut for the Lions. He allowed four receptions on five targets, but only for 32 yards. He also had a pass breakup and took a pass-interference penalty, which was negated by an offsetting flag. Perhaps most impressively, he finished second on the team in tackles with 10, which means that he was effectively and aggressively taking part in stopping the run.

“You saw a guy that really challenged,” Glenn said. “You saw a guy that really improved. You saw a guy that is building confidence, and it’s been another week for him to build his confidence. Excited about the player, excited what he did, but man, it doesn’t stop here. And you’ve got to continue to keep stacking games like this.”

Glenn said that his favorite part about Okudah’s performance — and the reason he wasn’t upset by the pass-interference penalty — was the way Okudah “challenged.”

“He got the (pass interference). I will accept that. The reason I’m accepting it is because he was challenging on that play. It wasn’t a PI where he was reaching and grabbing and things like that, man, he was trying to defend his guy until the very last second of that play. And some of those (penalties), man, it comes with the territory of being a DB.”

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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