Detroit Lions’ youngsters on defense offer light in a season growing dark

Detroit Free Press

ARLINGTON, Texas — First, some numbers: The Detroit Lions lost their fourth straight game Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium. They are 1-5. They’ll be lucky to top last season’s win total: three.

It’ll be a blow to the psychology of the rebuild if they finish 3-14 and it will put head coach Dan Campbell on the hot seat, as it should. Because no matter how much his players enjoy playing for him or how endearing he is at the podium, the NFL isn’t a try-hard business.

Eighteen times, Campbell has lost since he took over last season. It’s staggering in a vacuum. In the context of Detroit, it’s normal — mind-numbingly, predictably, normal, where Halloween marks the virtual end of another NFL season despite eight or so games left to play.

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OK, now that we’ve got that unpleasantness out of the way, let’s discuss what wasn’t so ugly during the Lions 24-6 loss to the Cowboys:

The defense.

The side of the ball that looked historically bad the first month of the season looked competent — and even interesting — against the Cowboys.

“You look out there at one point and there’s Hutch (Aidan Hutchinson), there’s (Josh) Paschal, there’s (Malcolm) Rodriguez, there’s Kerby (Joseph), there’s A.J. Parker, there’s Mac (Alim McNeil),” Campbell said. “You’re looking at how young this defense is. And that’s encouraging. I think those guys are going to be pretty good football players.”

Campbell didn’t mention Jeff Okudah, who may have played his best game as a Lion after using the bye week to sit with his coaches and figure out the best places to line up and take advantage of his talents.

Okudah struggled as a rookie and blew out his Achilles during the first game of his second season. He arrived as a first-round pick from Ohio State with the promise of a lock-down corner; although he isn’t quite that yet, he is showing ball skills against receivers and safety skills against running backs.

He was everywhere Sunday, shooting gaps like a linebacker, shrinking the box like a menace, sprinting with receivers on slants and outs and deep crossing routes. His play so far is promising.

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So was Paschal’s. The rookie lineman from Kentucky chased down backs and blew up the pocket several times during his debut.

He was general manager Brad Holmes’ second-round pick in the spring. Because he had hernia surgery and couldn’t play until Sunday, Paschal became the face of Holmes’ questionable strategy of choosing so many youngsters with injury issues.

That question doesn’t go away after a single game and won’t go away until Jameson Williams (knee) and Levi Onwuzurike (back) get on the field, too, and show the wait was worth it.

Paschal showed he may well be worth the risk. And while Hutchinson wasn’t considered a risk in the first round in April, he showed more Sunday than he has all season.

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The No. 2 pick had two sacks and a few more quarterback hits and played with more verve and confidence than he had in a month. The bye week helped reset him. So did his coaches, who encouraged him to play more freely.

“I thought they gave me more freedom, and I was taking more advantage,” he said. “I think we had four rookies starting on defense. I think we’ve got a bright future with a lot of the rookies we’ve got. Josh was playing his ass off that whole game.”

And while they stumbled in the fourth, that’s to be expected when the offense keeps turning it over. Five times, the Lions gave the ball back. Yet the Cowboys only scored on three of those.

Beyond that, Hutchinson and Co. Held up on third down, the down that they could do nothing with over the first four games of the season. Many times Sunday, though, Okudah or Paschal or Rodriguez or Joseph were cutting off the corner and closing the lanes.

They looked swift and connected, and while the Cowboys aren’t an offensive juggernaut, they have skill players and a capable quarterback in Dak Prescott. It helped that he’d missed the last month with a thumb injury and that he missed a few easy passes early.

But to suggest that he wasn’t under duress because of the Lions would be misleading. He was. He felt them.

When was the last time you could say that about a Lions’ defense?

“I think the difference was us flying around and having some confidence in ourselves,” Paschal said.

Sometimes all it takes is to make a few plays. Good plays beget more good plays, and the next thing you know, you’re in a tight game in the fourth quarter on the road despite the offense only scoring six points.

There’ll be more tests this season, of course. There’ll be more setbacks and mistakes. Still, the young guys gave a glimpse Sunday, and in a season that’s essentially over, glimpses matter even more.

“I thought we were playing well, man,” Hutchinson said.

And they were, until the turnovers and the field position overwhelmed them. For now, that will have to do, a bit of light in a season that has gotten dark early.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter@shawnwindsor.

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