Four Downs: Kerby Joseph’s picks, Lions’ defensive improvement and that Rams draft pick

Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 15-9 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

First down

Five years ago, the Lions’ secondary was loaded with playmakers. Cornerback Darius Slay led the NFL with eight interceptions in 2017, and he was complemented by safeties Glover Quin and Quandre Diggs, who combined for six more. Of course, soured relationships with former coach Matt Patricia led to the exit of all three players, leaving the Lions on the hunt for defenders capable of consistently generating takeaways ever since.

That year, the Lions’ defense finished third in turnovers. In the four seasons since, they’ve ranked 31st, 24th, 31st and 21st. And while they remain in the lower half of the league with nine through eight games this season, rookie safety Kerby Joseph is providing a glimmer of hope that the team has found a true playmaker to build around in the back end.

Joseph shouldn’t be performing at this high of a level this soon. A converted wide receiver, he barely logged more than 1,000 defensive snaps at the University of Illinois. He wasn’t even locked into the Illini’s starting lineup until the third game of his senior season. But in short order, he flashed the ball skills that are unquestionably translating to the next level.

Joseph intercepted five passes in 357 coverage snaps last season and came down with his first two as a pro against Green Bay, hauling in a deflected throw in the first quarter before undercutting a deep ball across the middle in the third frame. And the picks come after he forced fumbles each of the past two games with big hits across the middle, showing a budding, all-around profile.

But it’s clear his ability to track the ball, close ground and finish with the skill set he cultivated as a receiver add up to something special. And it’s affirmation that ball skills in college football should never be ignored in the evaluation process. Look at the NFL’s interception leaderboard for the past five years and you’ll find it littered with guys who had similar success picking off passes in college. Xavien Howard, Jordan Poyer, Harrison Smith, Kevin Byard, Diggs and Slay all had a season with at least four interceptions in college.

So, as general manager Brad Holmes and the team’s scouting staff consider options to build on what Joseph is providing Detroit’s defense, it’s worth keeping an eye on those prospects pulling down the picks, guys like Utah’s Clark Phillips and Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes, who are among a group pacing Division I with five interceptions.

Second down

The Lions’ offense certainly missed T.J. Hockenson on Sunday, less than a week after they traded him to the Minnesota Vikings.

That’s not a criticism of the deal, which I maintain made sense for both sides, but the immediate impact of not having another underneath option was felt against the Packers, who sat in a Cover-2 zone much of the day and made it difficult for Jared Goff to work the ball downfield. On throws of 10 or more yards, the quarterback went just 2-of-6 , even having one intercepted by Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander.

Hockenson, meanwhile, thrived in that underneath role for the Vikings, catching all nine balls thrown his way for 70 yards in a victory.

Obviously, the Lions weren’t devoid of pass-game contributions from their trio of young, Hockenson replacements. Shane Zylstra caught Goff’s first touchdown, smoothly executing a fake block before coming wide open on a shallow cross. And rookie James Mitchell hauled in two key catches, pulling in a score in the middle of the end zone as the third read prior to running a clean route to the flat for a third-and-short conversion.

The Lions should be able to make do with what they have down the stretch, and it should be particularly valuable for Mitchell’s development to have a clear path for playing time these final 10 games. At that point, the team can more accurately assess how much they need to reinvest in the position next offseason.

Hockenson’s absence will continue to be felt this year, without a doubt, but that should be lessened as the roster gets a little healthier, particularly if speedy rookie receiver Jameson Williams eventually gets the green light to return in 2022.

Third down

Unlike the Dallas game, where the defensive performance felt like a mirage because of a few good bounces and some subpar decisions made by an opposing quarterback returning from a lengthy injury layoff, Detroit’s showing against the Packers had the appearance of genuine improvement. And while a one-game sample size never means much, the coaching staff seems to be getting a better feel for its personnel, even if it’s frustratingly late in the season for some of those changes.

It’s especially easy to like what the Lions are doing in the secondary. Taking Mike Hughes out of the nickel and putting him outside lines up with what we know about his best fit prior to coming to Detroit. And Will Harris, despite his relative lack of experience in the slot, is smart, athletic and physical enough to give the Lions their best shot of getting reliable play at that spot going forward.

Moving closer to the ball, Derrick Barnes’ showing was unexpected but welcomed. The team dialed his role all the way back to start the season and has been slowly building up the second-year linebacker, trying to get him comfortable with smaller, specific assignments.

On Sunday, he played more than twice as many snaps as any other game this year and was a difference-maker, particularly coming forward as a run defender and pass rusher. There are still coverage kinks to smooth out, but they aren’t shielding him from opportunities, and you can see improvements there, as well.

Will he ever be a reliable starter? It’s far too early to know, but it’s OK to settle for meaningful progress in his development, after a rocky start to his career.

Finally, up front, things are still being sorted out. It was good for the team to get Charles Harris back, albeit in a highly limited capacity. I’m still interested to see what he can offer as a pass-rusher now that the scheme has reverted back to more wide alignments on the edges, where he thrived a year ago.

Additionally, John Cominsky’s workload nearly tripled from the previous two weeks, signifying the broken thumb that shelved him a few weeks is nearly in the rear-view. Now, if he can recapture some of his pocket-affecting ability from the start of the season, that would resonate through all three levels of the defense.

Fourth down

With the victory, the Lions are no longer in line to draft first overall next April, but, as we’ve noted previously, that was always unlikely to hold steady. And while we’ll continue to monitor the team’s place in the order, it’s been far more fascinating to see how increasingly valuable the Lions’ second first-rounder is becoming.

The lingering component from last year’s Matthew Stafford trade, the Lions are set to get the Rams’ first-round choice next year. And, if you haven’t been paying attention, the defending Super Bowl champions are struggling. After giving up a game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds to the Buccaneers, the Rams have now lost four of their past five, leaving them 3-5 on the year.

That means the Lions are on track to inherit a top-15 draft pick, which currently sits at No. 12. Now, to be fair, the schedule softens up a bit here for the Rams, with games against the struggling Cardinals and Saints the next two weeks. Still, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the champs to return to the postseason, particularly if it means catching the 49ers, who already hold a convincing head-to-head win this season.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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