Detroit – No, you have not seen this before. You might think you have, but you haven’t.
You haven’t seen a Lions defense this bad, this ridiculously disjointed. You’ve never seen the Lions lose like they did to the Seahawks 48-45, as they allowed 555 yards of total offense and didn’t force a single punt. For all we know, Seattle doesn’t even have a punter, which makes sense because the Lions don’t have a kicker.
I know you haven’t seen anything like this because according to the record books, an NFL game had never ended 48-45 until Sunday at Ford Field. How do you even comprehend this: The Lions lead the NFL in scoring by a considerable margin, and Jared Goff keeps producing despite an injury-riddled lineup, and their record is 1-3.
Dan Campbell doesn’t have a defense and doesn’t have an answer. He could fire coordinator Aaron Glenn or shake up his staff and nobody would argue. Nothing might change either, and it would make Campbell look like he was ducking responsibility. He says he takes full blame and doesn’t sound inclined to make a move, reiterating his faith in Glenn while vowing to explore all options.
“I have to look at everything with (Aaron Glenn),” Campbell said. “We’ll look at everything we need to, from the scheme to our personnel. … I’ve got a lot of faith in AG. I’ve got a ton of faith in those assistants, and I think we sit down and look at everything together. I think more than anything, maybe it’s time for a deep dive, a real deep dive into it.”
The problem is, the Lions’ defensive issues are deeper and uglier than ever imagined. They’re last in the league in points allowed, also by a considerable margin. Do they lack talent? Oh yes, and young players they were counting on are injured, unproven, or underperforming.
Is the scheme a poor fit for the personnel? Sure looks that way, and at least that can be adjusted. Glenn preaches aggressiveness and loves blitzing, but doesn’t have the line or the linebackers to get to the quarterback, and doesn’t have the secondary that can compensate.
The Lions lost their top safety, Tracy Walker, for the season with an Achilles injury but they’ve been much healthier on defense than offense. Rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez has played well but other newcomers – including No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson − have struggled to be impactful. Hutchinson had three sacks in his second game and none since, although he did record five tackles Sunday. Fellow defensive end Charles Harris’ production also has dropped.
“Obviously, if we start pointing fingers and stuff, everything goes downhill, so we’re not doing that,” Hutchinson said. “We know defensively we have to be better. Props to the offense, you know when you put up 45, we have to win that game.”
Can’t make a stop
In fact, the Lions never had a true shot because they never made a key stop. The Seahawks came in with one of the worst offenses in the league, and every time they needed yards to keep the ball, they got ‘em. Every. Single. Time. With 2:14 left, the Seahawks led 41-38 and faced a third-and-five at the Lions’ 41. No sweat, as Rashaad Penny burst up the middle and straight to the end zone.
Goff and the offense remained remarkably prolific despite missing their top two pieces, D’Andre Swift and Amon-Ra St Brown. The Lions answered with a quick touchdown and the crowd, which swayed all day from booing exasperation to sudden exhilaration, was roaring again, down 48-45. One stop was all the Lions needed after narrowly missing an onside kick recovery. And on third-and-5 from Detroit’s 41, all the Seahawks did was hand the ball again to Penny, who burst straight up the middle again for 7 yards, game over.
The Lions made Penny look more like a silver dollar, as he rushed for 151 yards. The Seahawks’ 555 total yards was slightly more than the Lions’ 520. You’d like to say it was a breathtaking shootout, two high-powered offenses going back and forth, but that would be a lie. It was more like two awful defenses swinging and missing.
If the offense got frustrated, it didn’t show. This will be the big test for Campbell, keeping his all-for-one, one-for-all environment from fracturing. Goff was 26-for-39 for 378 yards and four touchdowns. If not for a poor decision that led to a 40-yard TD interception return by Tariq Woolen, his performance would’ve been sensational. Without St. Brown and receiver D.J. Chark, Goff deftly targeted tight end T.J. Hockenson, who caught eight passes for 179 yards, which included an 81-yarder.
Goff lit up the offense, and was asked how he might help lift up the defense.
“Keep supporting them,” Goff said. “Because I’ve been on the inverse of that and it’s tough. We trust those guys, we trust those coaches, we trust those players. I’ll tell you one thing, if you don’t support them, it goes downhill really quickly. So if we want to stay in this fight and have any chance, it’s stick together and remain a team.”
While the defense has regressed dramatically, the offense keeps progressing under first-time coordinator Ben Johnson. The contrast is fairly shocking, considering GM Brad Holmes used plenty of draft capital on defense. Second-round pick Josh Pascal was supposed to help with the pass rush but has been sidelined all season. Rookie safety Kerby Joseph has a lot to learn. Jeff Okudah has bounced back nicely after missing a year, although Seattle’s DK Metcalf worked him over a bit with seven catches for 149 yards.
Play it safe?
The Lions didn’t restock their defense via free agency, opting to grow from within, and so far the strategy is producing short-term pain with no guarantee of long-term gain. Glenn is a highly respected coordinator who frequently is mentioned as a head coach candidate, and he didn’t build his reputation out of thin air. But when a defense looks this bad, reputations can turn in a hurry.
Right now Glenn looks like a coach pushing players for more – whether equipped or not – without providing many safety nets for youthful mistakes. Hate to say it, but he might have to mix it up and play a bit safer. Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith can be elusive but the Lions made him look unstoppable, as he ran for 49 yards and passed for 320 and wasn’t sacked once. Lions defenders are so intent on crashing from the edges to hit the quarterback (notably Hutchinson and Harris), they become vulnerable to outside escapes or runs up the middle.
The Lions lack discipline, and not just on defense. They were sloppy in a lot of areas, committing 11 penalties. Their replacement kicker due to injury, Dominik Eberle, missed two extra points.
So much to clean up, so many culprits. If it was as easy as dumping the defensive coordinator, it’d probably be done. If it was as easy as just outscoring opponents, well, how much more can a team score than the most points in the league?
Players must take accountability too, but the talent deficiencies are obvious. And that leads to other problems.
“I know this, we lack confidence, that’s very clear to see,” Campbell said. “It’s frustrating and I have nobody to blame but myself. That’s on me to handle that, and I can’t keep saying that, you can’t keep writing that. I’ll look at everything.”
Inspection and introspection might provide some clarity, but it won’t be easy. The defensive woes are deep and debilitating, and no obvious help is on the way.