Four downs: Rookies help lift Lions’ defense; time to spend a high draft pick on RB?

Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 24-6 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

First down

We would be foolish to overreact to the small sample size of a single game, but Detroit’s defensive performance in Dallas marked notable improvement from the unit’s early-season results. The Lions held a good Cowboys offense to 10 points through three quarters, until the turnovers started piling up in the final frame, repeatedly resulting in having to defend short fields.

But more than the box score results, what was attractive about the performance was the personnel the Lions leaned on to accomplish them. Looking over the snap counts Monday morning to confirm initial impressions, four rookies logged at least 46 snaps, with safety Kerby Joseph and defensive linemen Aidan Hutchinson and the debuting Josh Paschal barely leaving the field. Additionally, second-year players Alim McNeill, AJ Parker and Derrick Barnes all played sizeable roles, and it’s likely only a matter of time before Jerry Jacobs works his way back into the rotation after making his return from a nearly year-long absence due to an ACL tear.

But back to those rookies for a moment. A strong case can be made that this was Hutchinson’s best game, even more so than his three-sack performance against Washington in Week 2 because the edge rusher out of Michigan won his individual matchups to get home twice against Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. Rushing more from a two-point stance, and given more freedom with his rush approach, Hutchinson utilized a wider array of pass-rush moves to affect the pocket, including a pair of spin moves that resulted in a sack and additional hit on the QB.

As for Paschal, he showed a nuanced feel for defending the run, something the Lions often have lacked on the edge this season. His impact was felt early, when he had a run stop on first down and drove Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott wide toward the sideline on third down, where he was dropped for a loss, forcing a punt. Paschal’s only notable struggles came when he hesitated on a pair of zone-read run plays, including one in the fourth quarter that resulted in a big gain. He was certainly put in conflict on those snaps, but being more decisive could have made a difference.

With Joseph, Detroit’s third-round pick, he’s rapidly improving before our eyes. He’s looking particularly effective in coverage, routinely finding himself in position to make plays on the ball, giving you the feeling some interceptions are on the way, sooner than later. He’s still figuring things out as a run defender, taking a bad angle and missing a tackle on the Cowboys’ longest ground gain, but that should improve with more reps for the relatively inexperienced converted receiver.

Since it’s such a young unit, overall, there are going to continue to be understandable bumps in the road, but after entering the day as the NFL’s worst scoring defense, and allowing 6.5 yards per play, the second-worst figure in league history, it’s encouraging to see that youth making an obvious impact, knowing those players should only get collectively better as they gain experience and playing time together.

Second down

With Paschal activated and playing such a big role, the Lions opted to scratch captain Michael Brockers from the lineup prior to Sunday’s game. Because he’s an important veteran voice, both on the field and in the locker room, that’s not an easy decision, but based on his season-long performance, it was the right move. It shows the coaching staff is remaining consistent in how they’ll treat the roster, regardless of experience, past performance or salary.

As a leader and culture builder, Brockers has fulfilled his purpose. He’s been a valuable resource for the young talent the Lions have added to its defensive line the past two years, teaching them what is required to succeed as a professional and holding them accountable when they fall short of those standards. But when it comes to on-field performance, the veteran and former first-round pick has fallen well short of expectations. An effective interior pass rusher his final couple of years in Los Angeles, he barely affected the pocket his first season in Detroit.

And it’s been much of the same this season, so much like the Lions did when they benched Amani Oruwariye a week earlier, they opted to pull Brockers from the lineup due to his ineffectiveness. But unlike Oruwariye, who was right back into a starting role this week due to injuries, it’s unclear how quickly, if at all, Brockers can find a path back to meaningful playing time. That’s not only because Paschal is back, and quickly proved capable of handling a full workload, but John Cominsky is also getting closer to full strength, returning to action and playing 10 snaps on Sunday after missing three games with a broken thumb.

The Lions still owe Brockers a lot of money this year, and he has nearly $4 million in dead money remaining on the contract in 2023, but it’s not unimaginable to see the Lions part ways with the respected veteran before the end of this season, giving him an opportunity to finish the year, and potentially his career, with a contender.

Third down

I’m sorry to do this before November, but it’s worth acknowledging the Lions are currently hold the No. 1 position in the draft order. We point that out knowing a lot can and will happen the final 11 weeks of the season, and given how this team pulled together down the stretch last year with a less talented roster, odds are they won’t finish in this spot. Still, it’s clearly not impossible, especially if the Lions’ injury situation continues to be what it’s been.

So let’s play out the hypothetical. If the Lions end up with the No. 1 pick, there are presently two obvious options at that spot, and they both play for the University of Alabama. They could go with the guy many analysts believe is the most talented player in the class, defensive end Will Anderson. That’s a move that would inject more youth and pass-rushing talent into a defense that could certainly use it. And the idea of pairing Anderson with Hutchinson for years to come is certainly appealing.

Alternatively, the Lions could grab the best quarterback in this class. That might still be up for debate, but most observers will tell you it’s the reigning Heisman winner, Bryce Young. The case here is finding a franchise quarterback is the most difficult aspect of roster building, and for all the moments Jared Goff has suggested he can be more than a bridge to the next guy, the past two performances are enough to sway thinking back the other direction. Young might be a flawed prospect who carries risk, mostly relating to his size, but there’s no doubt he would bring improved arm strength and mobility to the position for the Lions.

Ultimately, if Detroit wins three or four more games, they won’t face the choice. But if they were to end up in that position, it’s not shaping up to be an easy decision.

Fourth down

On that injury front, running back D’Andre Swift missed his third game, unable to shake the ankle and shoulder injuries that have plagued him much of the season. When we say he’s one of the league’s more dynamic backfield talents, we’re not telling you anything you don’t already know, but the football cliché tells us the best ability is availability. In three seasons in Detroit, Swift has missed nearly 30% of his regular season games due to various injuries. At this stage, it’s enough to lead you to believe it’s always going to be an issue.

The Lions have been getting by with their other backs, and Jamaal Williams is a fine option to lean on in a pinch, but he’s not featured runner. That opinion has nothing to do with the fact he lost the first fumble of his career in the most critical of moments against Dallas. Generally speaking, he’s steady, efficient and durable, but doesn’t offer much in the big-play department and is average, as best, as a pass-catching option. On top of all that, his contract expires at the end of the year, so he’s not even guaranteed to be on this roster in 2023.

With Swift’s durability and Williams’ limitations in mind, it’s worth suggesting that drafting a(nother) running back relatively early next offseason might be in the cards, particularly considering the coaching staff’s philosophical preference for a balanced offense.

That’s not to say the Lions need to use their second first-round pick, coming over from the Rams, on Texas’ Bijan Robinson. He might be the best backfield prospect since Saquon Barkley, but that’s a huge cost to address the position. But looking at Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs or Syracuse’s Sean Tucker on Day 2 has to be in play, right?And spare me the idea of drafting only defense. Should that unit be an overall priority in the draft? Sure, barring the team’s free agency approach, but you don’t stop watering a healthy house plant while trying to resuscitate another dying from neglect.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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