Four Downs: Lauding St. Brown, Okudah — and Fields — and Swift’s rough road back

Detroit News

Chicago — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 31-30 victory over the Chicago Bears.

First down

Two years ago, the Lions faced a difficult draft-day decision, having to choose between a franchise-caliber offensive lineman or an heir apparent at quarterback. Ultimately, with the recently acquired Jared Goff under contract a few more seasons, the team opted for Penei Sewell over Justin Fields. And I’m sure the front office, coaching staff and many fans will stand by that decision. After all, Sewell has developed into an excellent player with an unquestionably bright future.

Fields wound up in Chicago after the Bears traded up nine spots in the first round to secure his rights. And despite a rocky start to his career, he’s rapidly turning a corner as one of the game’s better dual-threat quarterbacks. Leaning into utilizing his mobility, he’s the best running quarterback in the NFL this side of Lamar Jackson. The Lions found that out on Sunday, when they allowed him to run for nearly 150 yards, one week after he set the NFL’s single-game rushing record by a quarterback.

And to think, he’s doing all of this without a true No. 1 receiver. Look around the league at some other young quarterbacks — namely, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts — who are experiencing surges in their performances after their teams added a star receiver in the offseason. The Bears recently traded for Chase Claypool, which is a good start to surrounding Fields with better weapons, but what’s the ceiling if they find an A.J. Brown or Tyreke Hill in the draft or free agency next offseason? It’s a scary thought.

The Lions are no strangers to dealing with great quarterback play within the division. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have dominated the NFC North for the past three decades. But with Rodgers on the decline, it’s Fields who suddenly presents the greatest long-term threat for the Lions. There’s a lot of room for growth as a passer, but if he gets a better weapon or two and continues on this trajectory, it will forever carry the added “what-if” caveat after the Lions passed in the draft.

Second down

When the Lions finished strong to close out the 2021 season, it coincided with rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s emergence as the offense’s top weapon. He had a similar impact to begin this year’s campaign, producing eight or more catches in a razor-thin loss to the still-undefeated Philadelphia Eagles and a convincing victory over the Washington Commanders.

But a high-ankle sprain, suffered in Week 3, has hampered the second-year receiver for weeks. And that, along with some other injuries, brought Detroit’s offense tumbling back to reality after a hot start.

The Lions are still a long way from full strength on that side of the ball, but with St. Brown’s ankle fully mended, the team wisely made him the focal point of the game plan to start Sunday, helping get some early points after struggling to put much of a dent in the scoreboard the previous three weeks.

St. Brown was instrumental on both the first and second drives, catching six passes and taking a handoff as the Lions jumped out to a 10-3 lead. And with Josh Reynolds and DJ Chark continuing to miss time because of injuries, it’s a performance the Lions desperately needed from last year’s top receiver.

In games where St. Brown has caught at least eight passes, the Lions are 5-4, and when he has 80 or more receiving yards, they’re even sharper, checking in at 5-2 in those contests.

Third down

D’Andre Swift was off the final injury report for the first time in weeks last Friday, practicing fully without being hindered by the ankle and shoulder injuries that have plagued him much of the year. It gave reason to believe he might be more involved in the offense after logging just 10 snaps and five touches the previous week.

But that only turned out to be minimally true. Against the Bears, Swift was on the field for 19 snaps and received seven touches.

Now, to be clear, Jamaal Williams is playing well. The power-running component in Detroit’s backfield rotation continues to be on pace for his first 1,000-yard season. But Swift, when healthy, remains the team’s best playmaking threat.

As we all know, Swift has struggled with durability throughout his career, and each time the Lions try to reinvest their faith in him staying on the field, he ends up knocked from the lineup. So maybe this conservative role is the new norm, which is a shame.

Fourth down

Jeff Okudah’s comeback story added another chapter last night. After tearing his Achilles last year, he’s been impressive in his return to the lineup, punctuated by a critical pick-six in the fourth quarter of yesterday’s game.

But there was another comeback that merits some attention. Former Lions’ first-round pick Jarrad Davis made his season debut, more than a year after he left the franchise in free agency.

Picking up some work with rookie Malcolm Rodriguez injured, Davis saw 12 snaps on defense and another 15 on special teams. And for the most part, he was assignment-sound, even coming up with a pass breakup on the game’s opening series that helped force the Bears into settling for a field goal.

Davis obviously never lived up to his draft status, but he’s always been a humble, hard-working player who does the right things behind the scenes. To see him get a small opportunity to remind fans he has something to offer to a roster is worth acknowledging.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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