Four Downs: Lions secondary is getting its signals crossed

Detroit News

Minneapolis — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 28-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

First down

It’s been a recurring theme since early last season, but communication issues continue to plague the Lions secondary. It was clear, on multiple occasions throughout Sunday’s contest, the defensive backs don’t always know who is responsible for covering which receiver, particularly when matching bunch formations.

The most notable examples of the issues occurred on Adam Thielen’s touchdown in the second quarter, a failed deep shot to K.J. Osborn later in that frame and, obviously, the game-winning touchdown to Osborn.

On Thielen’s touchdown, Amani Oruwariye was in coverage prior to the snap, but when the Vikings motioned a receiver to his side of the field, the cornerback attempted to pass off Thielen, running a crossing route, to Jeff Okudah, swapping responsibilities for the man in motion.

In terms of positioning, it’s easy to see Oruwariye was correct in attempting to make the swap, but Okudah missed the signal from his teammate, leaving both covering the receiver in motion and allowing Thielen to leak open along the back of the end zone for an easy score.

With Osborn’s deep shot in the second quarter, he was wide open for a big gain, but the pass sailed past his reach due to pass rush pressure from Aidan Hutchinson. Prior to the snap, the Vikings had three receivers to the left and the coverage got its signals crossed with two defensive backs covering an underneath option as Osborn ran free down the sideline.

And in the closing minute of the game, nickel cornerback Mike Hughes allowed Osborn to release into the deep portion of the field where Hughes anticipated deep safety JuJu Hughes, filling in for the injured Tracy Walker, to pick up responsibility for the receiver. But the safety help was nowhere to be found, resulting in the open touchdown.

I spent some time in the locker room asking around if Aaron Glenn’s coverage concepts were too complicated, or if the Vikings surprised the Lions with previously unseen formations, but the defenders on those plays pointed the fingers at themselves. Regardless, it’s troubling there have been these elementary breakdowns three weeks into the season.

JuJu Hughes’ relative inexperience — having fewer than 100 defensive snaps in his career prior to Sunday — definitely factored into the equation. But with Walker’s injury sidelining him for the season, he’ll need to get up to speed quickly. Just like last season, Glenn is also going to have to put an emphasis on increased vocalization of coverage responsibilities pre- and post-snap so that the Lions can fix this glaring issue.

More: Wojo: Campbell ‘hates’ his gamble gaffe and Lions lose a crusher

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Second down

The absence of John Cominsky and the impact of Hutchinson’s injury were noticeable.

It’s unclear how long the Lions will be without Cominsky, who suffered a wrist injury requiring surgery in the second half of last week’s game against Washington, but the team had to modify a number of defensive looks up front, mostly notably the third-down pass rush.

Going into the game, I thought that might mean more reps for Julian Okwara or even Michael Brockers, who has plenty of experience rushing the passer from the inside, but the Lions actually leaned more on 340-pound Alim McNeill as the second interior lineman on third-down passing situations.

McNeill certainly has some ability to rush the passer, but he doesn’t present anything similar to Cominsky’s get-off, which can stress an interior offensive lineman immediately after the ball is snapped. It’s possible the decision to use McNeill was opponent specific, given the ground game threat Minnesota presents regardless of down-and-distance, but I’d think there would be a little more value to using Julian Okwara inside and putting Austin Bryant outside, or reversing those two, going forward.

As for Hutchinson, there was a play early in the game where he landed on his injured thigh and then had a defender crash on top of him. He was slow to get up after that series, but did his best to walk it off and stay in the game. Unfortunately, the No. 2 pick was largely ineffective the remainder of the contest, struggling against both the run and getting after the quarterback. He only got home on a couple stunts, including the aforementioned deep shot disruption in the second quarter.

Third down

Outside of the quarterback position, the Lions offense is starting to feel injury-proof. Yeah, that’s an admittedly bold claim three weeks into the season, but how can you not be impressed with the continued excellence of the offensive line despite starting a backup center and practice squad offensive tackle at the two guard spots and keeping the opponent from hitting your quarterback?

And dynamic dual-threat running back D’Andre Swift is clearly ailing. He entered the game with an ankle injury, and early in the third quarter, he added a shoulder issue to the list of concerns. Still, the ground game kept chugging behind the stylistically different Jamaal Williams, who had his best rushing output since Week 6 of the 2019 season.

Even an ankle injury that hobbled Amon-Ra St. Brown, the key cog to Detroit’s offensive attack this season, couldn’t sufficiently slow Detroit’s offensive attack in the second half, which scored 10 points after working into scoring range four times.

Yes, an injury to Jared Goff would significantly hamper Detroit’s ability to continue to rack up more than 400 yards and 25-35 points per week, but the Lions have done a remarkable job building quality depth and a flexible scheme that can overcome the bumps in the road.

Fourth down

After going an atrocious 1-for-7 on third downs, the Lions are converting under 40% on the season, necessitating some of the fourth-down aggressiveness. And while there are a number of issues that need to be worked out in those gotta-have-it situations, the Lions either need to rework or abandon the square out routes they’ve tried to lean on early in the season because the receivers and tight ends are struggling to get separation and it’s been one of the throws Goff has struggled to make consistently, often sending it impossibly wide of his attended target.

The Lions are having considerably more success working the ball to the middle of the field, both with crossing routes or post and corner patterns out of play-action. Obviously, you can’t afford to be predictable in any situations, but coordinator Ben Johnson needs to rework some of the team’s route concepts, because the short, square outs currently aren’t working.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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