Detroit Lions mailbag: Addressing winning habits, overcoming injuries, and defensive issues

Detroit News

Allen Park — We committed to writing a Detroit Lions mailbag weekly this season — and so far, so good. And with that, we don’t like to waste many words on the intro, so let’s get right to your questions.

▶ Question: Is “learning how to win” a real thing, or something we tell ourselves as an excuse for blowing leads? — @CalebJ_A

▶ Answer: I really like this question because it forces me to reflect on whether I’ve been sucked into something I work hard to avoid: Sports-writing clichés. And there’s no doubt I’ve referenced the idea of “learning to win” in my reporting, my tweets and my radio interviews. Maybe I haven’t critically evaluated the phrase and how accurately it represents what’s really going on. So thanks for putting this out there.

But thinking more critically on it now, yes, I do believe there’s merit to the concept. In many ways, there’s some overlap between the closing minutes of a close football game and the NHL playoffs. The intensity ratchets up, the playing style becomes more physical and there’s a certain mental fortitude needed to execute in those pressure moments when legs are weak and lungs are on fire.

The Lions don’t only have a young roster, but a young coaching staff, in terms of experience. It’s completely fair to say that Campbell and his play-callers are learning how to execute in those closing minutes as much as the players. A big part of the reason historically-great franchises and coaches have sustained success is the ability to close out games, whether that’s holding on to a lead or scoring on a late drive to erase a deficit. The Lions are still working things out, in both regards. And there is a snowball effect at play here; with each time you accomplish it, you build confidence and understanding of how to finish, making it easier the next time.

Of course, just because the Lions are growing and learning on the fly, it doesn’t need to be viewed as an excuse. Pro sports is a results business, so the expectation is they figure it out sooner than later. Still, we have to remember, this is a roster that was essentially torn down to the studs a year ago and we should recognize the Lions are still in the throes of a rebuild, even if people are desperate to accelerate through the struggles to get to the payoff, um, I mean, playoffs.

▶ Q: What are your expectations for Aidan Hutchinson against a significantly weaker Seattle offensive line? — @xo_sumo

A: Let’s be honest: the No. 2 pick in the draft was essentially a non-factor last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Despite a hefty workload — playing 79% of the team’s defensive snaps — he delivered a bunch of goose eggs on the box score. His most notable contributions were a pair of QB pressures on stunts, where linebacker Alex Anzalone did the work to open the rush lane both times.

That means Hutchinson has struggled to have a positive impact in two of Detroit’s first three games. And as sexy as his three-sack performance from Week 2 might appear at first glance, credit for each at least partially belongs to teammates for creating the opportunities.

Now, that being said, Hutchinson’s played three games and he’s been banged up nearly half that time, nursing a thigh injury. There was a moment in the first half against the Vikings where he landed hard on the injured leg AND had a defender land on top of him, compounding the impact. It went under the radar, and he came up limping pretty good, yet he stayed in the fray and fought through it. He deserves some props for that.

In terms of snap-to-snap impact, it’s definitely been a disappointing start. Should anyone be overly concerned? Not at all. Repeating what’s already been noted, it’s three games. But if there is something I’d like to see in the near future, it’s some variance with his rush moves. We know there’s a more comprehensive toolset than we’ve seen so far, and the athleticism is undeniable, so as the thigh issue heals up, some variety in how he attacks blockers could be key.

The good news is Hutchinson didn’t appear on the injury report this Wednesday, suggesting he’s closer to full strength to start the week. And we have every reason to believe he’ll be in even better shape by Sunday. There’s no way for me to predict a stat line, but there’s potential for Hutchinson to get on track against Seattle’s offense tackles, rookies Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas.

Q: With Swift likely out this week, will Jamaal Williams definitely work as the lead back with Craig Reynolds as his backup, or could we see a possible 50/50 split with Reynolds in the Swift role and Williams in his regular spot? — @notishiiii

▶ A: Given the way the two backs have been playing to start this season, I would lean toward Williams being the featured runner. He’s coming off one of the best games of his career, and he’s shown, both here and in Green Bay, he’s built and capable to handle a bigger workload.

But Reynolds should see an uptick in opportunities, as well. And while he’s nowhere near as dynamic as Swift, he and Justin Jackson are better suited than Williams to contribute in the passing game.

Also, there’s a caveat here. The Lions might come in with a rotation in mind, but running backs coach Duce Staley is someone willing to ride a hot hand. If Williams is struggling and Reynolds or Jackson is having consistent success early, the team won’t hesitate to change its script.

Q: Everyone talks about Campbell’s decision at the end of the game, but I don’t see anyone 1) complimenting him for his decisions early to create 14 points and 2) the players absolutely cannot allow a TD in that late-game situation. Why no criticism to them? — @jimTHEsim24

▶ A: It sounds to me like you’re guilty of focusing on opinions that match your perception, because this is in no way reality.

In my immediate grades after the game, I praised Campbell’s overall aggressiveness, despite the late-game blunder, and my esteemed colleague, Bob Wojnowski, wrote an entire column on the topic.

“You can debate all the earlier decisions, but if the Lions don’t extend those possessions with fourth-down conversions, they might not be in it at the end,” Wojo wrote. “That’s why the players didn’t lament the loss like they have so many others in which they never had a shot.”

And who is ignoring the fact that the secondary failed to execute in the closing moments? I admittedly don’t read much about what others write about the team, but that seems like a preposterous claim. That said, Campbell’s decision and the botched coverage can both be criticized equally.

Q: To stop the off-tackle runs at our DEs, should we expect more of Alim McNeill at DE, and how does that shift the interior? — @Doorknob1974

▶ A: No, I can’t imagine this is a strategy the Lions would deploy. First of all, teams are struggling to run up the gut against Detroit, which is the preferred path for any offense. Why would you weaken a strength to strengthen a weakness? And would McNeil really solve the issue? Part of being an effective run defender on the edge is having the lateral agility to make a play going outside, and as athletic as McNeill is for his size, that’s not his forte.

Plus, based on what I’ve seen on film, I’d contend Detroit’s defensive ends haven’t always been the issue, at least not as much as the scheme. On these zone runs, where the end is sent crashing inside to match the flow of the offensive line, the edge-setting duties are often falling to a defensive back. It’s been their inability to consistently beat their blocks and fill the backside gaps that appears to be the greater issue.

The fix is likely a tweak to how the team is defending these runs, something that’s likely subtle, but above my understanding of the scheme to clearly identify. But if your players are routinely getting beat, an adjustment is probably in order.

Q: Are the defensive problems related to injury and execution or is Aaron Glenn putting players in bad positions with some of his play calls/scheme? — @reeber93

A: I don’t think it’s fair to use injuries as an excuse for the defense’s performance. It’s not like the unit has been blessed with great health, but the offense has had it worse and they’ve managed to find a way week in and week out.

No, Detroit’s woes are a combination of talent and inexperience, and, of course, Glenn isn’t without culpability.

Given the positive trends we saw at the end of last season, to go with an injection of some talent in the form of Hutchinson, Chris Board and DeShon Elliott, as well as the returning Jeff Okudah and unexpected emergence of Malcolm Rodriguez, it was completely reasonable to expect continued improvement. Instead, we’ve seen regression.

The Lions are near the bottom of the league in nearly every meaningful defensive statistic. Part of that problem is the continued inability to generate steady pass rush, despite blitzing more than 40% of the time. And there’s been a concerning number of communication breakdowns in the back end, which is a rerun of something we saw through much of the first half of last season.

And I believe the lack of playmakers remains a real concern. Maybe Hutchinson becomes that guy as he gets more confident and comfortable, but this team needs more playmaking ability in the middle of the field. Where is the linebacker who racks up tackles for loss and forces the occasional fumble? How about the safety with the range and anticipation to pick off some passes? Could that eventually be Rodriguez and Kerby Joseph, who had respective track records for those types of plays in college? Maybe down the line, but it’s clearly not there now and the Lions are suffering without it.

Q: Is it me or is T.J. Hockenson just not getting open or they don’t have confidence in him? — @DirtyJerzFinest

A: The sample size is so small, but on the throws where he’s been targeted, Hockenson is actually averaging more separation than top receiving tight ends such as Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and Kyle Pitts. But clearly, something has been a little off with the connection between Jared Goff and Detroit’s No. 1 tight end.

Now, I said I don’t like to use injuries as an excuse for an entire unit, but an individual can be a different story. Hockenson has appeared on the injury report with hip and foot issues the first three weeks, so that could be impacting things. It’s also possible his role in Ben Johnson’s scheme isn’t working as envisioned and is in need of tweaking.

With the offense having plenty of success, overall, it’s probably too early to sweat Hockenson’s early-season role and struggles, but given the guy is essentially playing for his next contract, it’s less than ideal.

▶ Q: What changes will Glenn take to mitigate the issues of facing a mobile quarterback this week like Geno Smith? — @chrisjlee

A: Smith entered the league as something of a dual-threat, but really hasn’t been much of a runner since his second season, way back in 2014. In his 18 games (eight starts) since that season, he’s only run the ball 37 times for 112 yards.

Where Smith can still hurt a defense is with his ability to move within the pocket and make an accurate throw without resetting his feet. We saw that a couple of times in the team’s primetime opener, a surprising win over Denver and former quarterback Russell Wilson.

That means Detroit needs to put an emphasis on understanding how Seattle’s pass-catching options, particularly the team’s trio of tight ends, operate in a scramble drill, making sure the back seven is on their Ps and Qs when the rush doesn’t immediately get home.

Q: How are our injuries compared to the rest of the league at this point? Average or high/below? — @GalaticCenter

A: It’s probably a little above average, and it feels worse because of the quality of the players missing practice time, but there are plenty of other teams around the league, including the Bills, Ravens, Saints, Titans, Texans, Falcons, Eagles, Panthers and Patriots who have double-digit players either limited or sidelined for practice to start this week.

Q: With Tracy Walker out, do we get a full slate of JuJu Hughes, or is this a committee situation? — @ToddSass1

A: We’re probably not going to know for certain until Sunday, but I’d lean toward Hughes taking most, if not all of the safety reps in place of Walker. At least to start. That’s the easy answer because Joseph and Ifeatu Melifonwu both merit the developmental label, given their lack of experience in the role.

Obviously, Joseph played the position in college, but that’s after converting from receiver halfway through his time at Illinois. And Melifonwu only made the switch in training camp, then proceeded to miss most of those practices with a hamstring strain.

I have to imagine the Lions will eventually want to get both some reps, but it still might be a little early.

Q: What is the future for Derrick Barnes? — @trumanfrancis

A: If I could see into the future with any degree of certainty, I’d probably use that power to make better investment decisions. With Barnes, concern about his developmental progress was noticeable through the offseason program, particularly when contrasted against Rodriguez, who surged to the front of the depth chart, but there was a stretch near the end of the camp where it felt like Barnes was starting to turn a corner. Of course, that feeling was erased by clear struggles in the season opener, struggles that saw him removed from the rotation.

At this stage, it’s probably going to take an injury to someone else for Barnes to see another extended opportunity on defense. And that’s where the crystal ball gets cloudy, because there’s no way to predict how he’d perform in that scenario, even though nothing about his past tape points to sudden success.

And while it’s disappointing to think it might never work out the way people had hoped, that’s how it often goes, particularly with Day 3 draft picks. The Lions made a calculated projection he could successfully handle a role change, from a down lineman to off-ball defender, and that hasn’t played out as envisioned. Then Rodriguez came to town and removed the need to keep forcing Barnes into playing time.

▶ Q: What changes do you anticipate will be made to our secondary that gave up that late touchdown to the Vikings? — @P_L_SATX

▶ A: In terms of personnel, I wouldn’t expect anything significant. Mike Hughes and JuJu Hughes, the primary parties involved in the play, are reasonably locked into their roles for the time being. But clearly, communication in the back end needs to improve. Last year, when this was an issue, Glenn put an emphasis on it, demanding increased pre- and post-snap communications during practice. It’s easy to see that coaching point emerging again.

Q: Do you think Jerry Jacobs and/or AJ Parker get into the mix in the secondary? — @pfnnewmedia

A: Right now, I don’t think there are any plans to promote Parker from the practice squad, so I’ll focus on Jacobs, who is expected to begin his return-to-play practice window here in the coming weeks.

After going from undrafted rookie to promising starter last year, it will be interesting to see how the Lions work Jacobs into the mix. I’ve been pushing the idea of giving him an opportunity to work as a nickel corner, and here’s a little bit of news — I was chatting with Jacobs in the locker room a couple of weeks back and asked about that hypothetical. He told me the coaching staff has indicated that’s something they’d like to try when he’s back, so it’s cool to know I wasn’t alone in thinking the skill set would be a good fit at that spot.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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