How quickly the excitement can be lost.
The Detroit Lions now sit at 1-2, and while the season is still young, it feels like they had a fair share of opportunities to be 2-1 or 3-0. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, the team could not build upon an early lead, and a second quarter implosion made their eventual comeback attempt fall short. The Lions emerged victorious over the Washington Commanders in Week 2, but it came after nearly blowing a 22-0 halftime lead. As for Sunday’s loss to the Vikings, little needs to be said about the late collapse. The Lions are a team on a rebuild, sure, and mistakes will happen, but it’s hard not to see it as a “what if” situation.
That being said, there are reasons to be optimistic. The passing game is magnitudes better than it was last year, and though quarterback Jared Goff is no All Pro, Sunday’s loss to the Vikings was one of his better outings. Rookies Aidan Hutchinson and Malcolm Rodriguez have played quite well early in their careers. D’Andre Swift has looked like a rejuvenated back this year. Even amid a swarm of injuries, the offensive line has been a positive.
If the Lions want to take the step from a middling-at-best team to a team ready to challenge for a playoff run, there are issues that urgently need fixing.
For one, head coach Dan Campbell needs to take this loss as a learning experience. Based on his post-game quotes, he is certainly aware of the mistakes that sunk their squad on Sunday. Campbell has earned praise for aggressiveness, but his team paid the price when the aggressiveness was toned down. This isn’t to say the Lions need to be aggressive for the sake of being aggressive, but more so that the moments of aggressiveness need to be carefully chosen.
As an overarching theme, health has been a pressing issue as well. The Lions were already missing key contributors like Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Jameson Williams, and Romeo Okwara, but the injury woes have already gotten worse. Safety Tracy Walker suffered what could be a serious non-contact injury. Swift, already banged up, suffered a separate injury on Sunday, as did Amon-Ra St. Brown and Josh Reynolds. Hutchinson was nursing an injury as well, and he did not look like his usual explosive self. The Lions have yet to play at their full potential, and they may never.
This isn’t to exclude the positional issues that linger on the roster. Goff is still a limiting factor on offense. The tight ends have been invisible in the passing game. The run defense has struggled at times. The linebackers often struggle to identify gaps. The secondary too often has miscommunications leading to massive, game-changing plays. The kicking game has been dreadful.
If the Lions want to keep pace with the NFC North, they will need to correct their mistakes as soon as possible. However, not all issues are created equal.
Today’s Question of the Day is:
What is the Lions’ most pressing issue so far?
My answer: I am most concerned about the secondary going forward.
Jeff Okudah has been a bright spot for the Lions’ defense, but there is only so much he can do. As we wait to hear about the extent of Walker’s injury, it leaves the safeties in limbo. DeShon Elliott has been fine, if unspectacular. That has been fine when paired with Walker, but if Walker misses time, Elliott will be heavily relied upon—can he do so?
The replacement for Walker is a concern too. JuJu Hughes stepped into the role, but as a player with limited starting experience, is he the guy going forward? The remaining safeties on the roster are youngsters who have yet to prove much. Ifeatu Melifonwu recently converted from cornerback, but a hamstring injury has limited his playing time. Kerby Joseph, meanwhile, looked every bit like an NFL rookie during preseason action, and thrusting him into the starting lineup may not solve their issues. The Lions do not have a clear replacement for Walker.
The cornerbacks behind Okudah need improvement too. Amani Oruwariye had a dreadful outing versus the Vikings, while Mike Hughes faired little better. Until Jerry Jacobs can return from injury—Week 5 is the earliest he may do so—the Lions lack any notable substitutions. Will Harris, Bobby Price, and Chase Lucas are the remaining corners on the team, none of whom look like sure-fire upgrades. In the end, the Lions will need Oruwariye and Hughes to simply play better—there isn’t much of a choice.
A lingering problem that might worsen following the Walker injury is miscommunication. Seemingly every game, the Lions corners and safeties suffer a miscommunication that results in a massive play for their opponent. You need look no further than the Vikings’ final drive, where K.J. Osborn was left wide open on back-to-back plays.
Losing Walker for an extended period would be brutal for the Lions’ secondary, which could in turn hinder any playoff aspirations. Unfortunately, barring a drastic midseason trade, the Lions will have to find answers for their problems from within. This will be a difficult test for Detroit: can they rebound from their first true hardship this season?