Finding fixes for Detroit Lions’ NFL-worst defense starts Sunday vs. Seattle Seahawks

Detroit Free Press

Michael Brockers has played the Seattle Seahawks twice a season for most of the past 10 years, so when he flipped on film this week of the Detroit Lions’ opponent Sunday, it almost didn’t seem right Russell Wilson wasn’t there.

Charles Harris did a similar double take when he sat down to study tape.

The No. 3 he was used to seeing run Seattle’s offense, darting in and out of the pocket, extending plays with his feet as everything collapsed around him, was nowhere to be found, replaced by No. 7, Geno Smith … who was doing similar things.

“He’s been there so long,” Harris said of Wilson. “But I mean, Geno, he got legs, too. He’s still got the arm, he’s still got the legs, so it’s like a Russell 2.0. We’re still playing the right gameplan for him.”

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The Lions host the Seahawks on Sunday at Ford Field in a battle of 1-2 teams who appear headed in opposite directions.

The Seahawks upset Wilson’s new team, the Denver Broncos, in Week 1, but are not expected to contend in the NFC West after trading their franchise quarterback as part of a major roster overhaul this offseason.

Seattle has one of the most anemic offenses in the NFL. The Seahawks rank 29th in points scored, 28th in total yards and have one second-half touchdown all season, on a return of a blocked field goal.

They might be just what the Lions’ toothless defense needs to get right in a week when their usually high-powered offense will be shorthanded without its two most explosive weapons, Amon-Ra St. Brown and D’Andre Swift.

The Lions opened this season expecting to be better on defense after spending three of their first four draft picks on the unit in April. But three games into the year, they are stuck in the same quagmire of defensive dysfunction that has helped doom their chances since 2019.

The Lions enter Sunday having allowed the most points in the NFL, they rank last in red zone defense and are 29th in yards allowed despite having not given up a first quarter point all season.

Though depth and a lack of proven playmakers remain an issue, this has been a somewhat unexpected start for a defense that seemed to find its footing late last year.

The Lions held seven opponents to 20 points or less in 2021, including five of the seven teams they faced in November and December. When they reconfigured their scheme to implement an even-man front this offseason, they incorporated much of what they did during their late-season surge.

“We got to make sure we lock down the details, everybody do their job for real, that’s really what it comes down to,” Harris said. “Just in general, a lot of guys, there’s a lot of things that are different (from last year’s defense), but at the same time a lot of guys who played in it before so we trust it, we know it’s going to work. At the end of last year, we knew it was going to work. It’s nothing (different) this year. It’s the same thing.”

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The Lions’ struggles through three weeks have been concentrated in two areas: They rarely force turnovers (just one team, the Washington Commanders, has fewer takeaways than the Lions’ two), so teams are able to string together drives; and they can’t get stops in the red zone.

The Lions have allowed touchdowns on 10 of their opponents’ 11 trips inside the 20-yard line this season, and gave up an 11th score on a 20-yard touchdown pass.

Seven of those TDs have been on plays of 1 or 2 yards after long drives, which is little consolation to secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant.

“You don’t have to soft serve it,” Pleasant said. “The positives is that we’re not letting them get down there easy. The negative is, if it’s a blade of grass we’ve got to defend it, man. That hard effort that you did to get down there, no one cares. You’ve got to stop them from putting points on the board, and we’re looking at that from not only the characteristics of our players, the scheme of what we’re doing. Do we need to simplify things? Do we need to add things here? All those things are being taken into account because at the end of the day, if we do not change it, Coach Pleasant will be looking to purchase a house somewhere else and that is important.”

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who interviewed for two head coaching jobs this offseason and has been touted as a rising star in the coaching ranks, said his defense has played “some really good football at times.”

“The issue is, man, our ability to finish, our ability to execute during crunch time,” he said.

In a Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions allowed conversions on 10 of 17 third downs, many of them when mobile Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts broke the pocket. Philadelphia finished with 216 yards rushing that game and had touchdown drives of 10 and 13 plays.

The Lions fared slightly better on third downs (stopping 8 of 15 attempts) in a Week 2 win over the Washington Commanders, when most of Washington’s success came during a frantic comeback attempt with the Lions playing soft in coverage.

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Last week, the Lions were stout on third downs, allowing 2 of 9 conversions in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, they just could not get stops early in possessions as Dalvin Cook averaged 5.6 yards per carry and the Lions got little meaningful pressure on Kirk Cousins.

“Our guys are competing, they’re playing fast, they’re playing physical,” Glenn said. “But man, once it gets to those crunch times, man, it just seems like, ‘Ah, how do we do this here?’ Or, ‘Do we have to do this?’ And when we don’t, we just keep doing the same things we’ve been doing to put ourselves in that position, and that’s what we have to continue to coach and that’s what we have to continue to do as players.”

For now, the only major change the Lions appear to be making is out of necessity.

Juju Hughes is expected to start at safety Sunday in place of Tracy Walker, who tore an Achilles tendon last week and is out for the season.

More help could be on the way. Cornerback Jerry Jacobs said he will return to practice from the physically unable to perform list next week and expects to return to action after the bye, and young defensive linemen Josh Paschal and Levi Onwuzurike are due back later this fall.

The Seahawks, with their offensive struggles, represent a get-well opportunity for the Lions, though Smith leads the NFL in completion percentage and Seattle has two capable running backs in Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Walker III.

“We’ve just got to cut a couple of these things back and cut them down and make them go the long hard way,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “If they’re going to do something, they’ve got to earn it, the opponent’s got to earn it. But we can’t just give it away, and we clean a couple of those up and it’ll look a lot different.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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