Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 31-27 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
Last year, around this time, Lions coach Dan Campbell had a postgame revelation that he needed to get rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown more involved in the offense. It took a couple more weeks to fully execute that plan, but by the end of the campaign, St. Brown was established as the go-to weapon in the passing attack, hauling in eight or more receptions the final six weeks of the season.
It struck me, as Campbell was bemoaning his defensive backs failing to execute the game plan against Dolphins receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle — which had tasked them to be more physical at the line of scrimmage to help neutralize the duo’s rare speed — the Lions had a possible solution on the bench.
So I asked the coach during his postgame news conference: How much longer before you want to get a longer look at Jerry Jacobs, a cornerback with no qualms about playing with physicality?
“Oh yeah, we’re going to be looking at Jerry,” Campbell said. “We’ll be looking at everybody. We want to make sure Jerry is ready to go and then let him compete and see where he is. We still feel like last week was a step in continuing to get his confidence back, getting his legs under him, and that started with (special) teams, and he got a little bit more in this department (against Miami). And once we feel like, OK, he’s right, he can take the load, and he competitively is better than one of the other guys, then he’s going to get his chance.”
Jacobs, an undrafted rookie a year ago, came out of nowhere to start nine games for the Lions last season. And he performed well during that stretch, allowing just 59% of the passes in his direction to be completed. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in December, shelving him for the next 10 months.
The Lions only recently reactivated Jacobs. In his debut a week earlier, he was on the field for seven special-teams snaps and one defensive snap. This week it was nine reps, all on special teams. And Campbell has been clear throughout the rehab process that the team was going to take it slowly, not overtaxing a player coming off serious injury.
Jacobs understands and respects the team’s concern. He said defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has consistently communicated that with him, and in a conversation with Glenn last week, he assured Jacobs they’re handling him with care because they have expectations he’ll be contributing for the franchise for the next few years.
Still, it was frustrating for Jacobs to know he’s medically cleared enough to play, but he’s still being held back while the Dolphins receivers ran by his teammates over and over again.
“Shoot, it’s very frustrating,” Jacobs said. “I try to tell (Pleasant) to calm me down when plays like that, big plays, get open. I’m not saying I’m going to change the game, but I can do something to help the defense by stopping the receivers at the line of scrimmage and not letting them run free. I’m not giving none of the DBs in our group hate or anything like that. I love all them boys, but we’ve just got to be more physical with the receivers. That’s all.”
After another one-score loss — which was Detroit’s 10th in 24 games under Campbell (contrasted against three such wins) — the coach once again projected optimism in the face of adversity.
“My thought is as frustrating as it is, I know how close we are because we are still talking about one play,” Campbell said. “And the hard thing is to just keep doing your job and staying in the thick of the storm. The easy thing is to go down below and get under the blanket, eat all the food and whatever. Guys who are going on the deck and just continue to do their part because they know the sun’s coming. Those are the guys we’re looking for. So, that’s how I choose to think of this. The only way to clean up everything is to go back to work; that’s all I know. So, we go back to work, because if we don’t, we have no chance of being in any of these games.”
If you’re a fan and that message isn’t hitting home at this point, who could blame you? You’ve been hopeful of the sun finally shining on this franchise for however many of the past six decades you’ve committed to watching, but it never seems to come over the horizon.
And within that, what is the hope we’re talking about here? That the Lions go from losing the majority of these one-score games to splitting them evenly, like the coin flip they should be? So you go from being a cellar dweller to mediocre? We’ve seen that before, and while it’s certainly a level of improvement, it similarly amounts to nothing.
I suppose it’s the logical step in the progression during a rebuild. You go from losing most of the close games, to splitting them to finishing on top most of the time. But, as long as one unit lags so far behind even being league average, the Lions are never going to go anywhere. They have an offense, that — when not decimated by injury — is good enough to compete with almost anyone on any given Sunday. But this putrid defense is anchoring the Lions to the bottom of the standings.
I look at Buffalo last night, and that’s a truly dominant team. Sure, they can finish close games, like they have in recent weeks against Kansas City and Baltimore. But more often than not, they’re cruising to easy wins. They blasted the Rams to open the season, hammered the Titans in Week 2 by 34 and similarly tossed aside the Steelers, winning by 35 in Week 5. And, at this rate, they’re going to come to town and similarly ruin your Thanksgiving by reminding you how far away the Lions are from being truly competitive.
Add nickel cornerback to Detroit’s 2023 wish list. For all the damage Hill and Waddle did in Sunday’s game, much of it came from the slot, where the Lions haven’t been getting an adequate performance from multiple options throughout the season.
In this particular game, it was AJ Parker who was floundering. An undrafted rookie a year earlier, he recently took over for Mike Hughes, a former first-round pick who wasn’t faring any better. And there’s converted safety Will Harris, who has never shown any reliable consistency during his four years in Detroit.
Hughes and Harris have deals that expire at the end of the year, and while there’s obviously room for Parker to continue to improve and develop, it’s such a critical position in the modern way defensive schemes are constructed, the Lions would be foolish to not seek an upgrade in either the draft or free agency.
There was a time when I thought Jacobs could be that solution — and maybe he still can be long-term — but he prefers playing outside, and that’s where the Lions could use him immediately. Maybe a switch inside is something explored next year, when he could have an entire offseason to practice there and gain a better understanding of the nuances required to defend that spot.
We’re still weeks away from seeing what rookie receiver Jameson Williams can provide the Lions, and we probably won’t have a full grasp until 2023, if we’re being honest. Waddle and Hill’s production and usage for the Dolphins yesterday and throughout the season gives us a window into why general manager Brad Holmes jumped 20 spots up the draft board to snag the former Alabama standout.
Williams’ skill set and frame are probably closer to Waddle’s, but that should do nothing to diminish the excitement. You’re talking about a player who is fourth in the NFL in receiving yards and sitting near the top of the league in yards per catch. He’s an explosive playmaker who can both get behind the defense running vertically, or stress coverage using his speed running parallel to the line of scrimmage, while always capable of doing additional damage after the catch.
That’s exactly what Williams did last year at Alabama. Now, think how useful he could have been on that fourth-and-2 play, where quarterback Jared Goff felt his only option was throwing deep to Josh Reynolds. If you put Williams in that formation, paired with the precise route running of St. Brown, it’s going to be nearly impossible for opponents to take away both underneath.