Allen Park — With one of the league’s youngest rosters, which is starting to hit its stride after earning five wins in the past six games, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell was asked if the team reminded him of any other he played on or coached for during his more than two decades around the NFL.
After thinking about it for a brief moment, Campbell noted he saw similarities between these Lions and the 2017 New Orleans Saints, where he was serving in his second season as the team’s tight ends coach and assistant head coach.
“I don’t want to dive too far into it, but I would say ’17 reminds me (of this one),” Campbell said. “There are similarities. We had a very young crop of pretty good players and we had some very good veteran players. So there are some things about it. Nobody knew what we were going to be able to do, but we could battle it out, we were a tough team, we were physical and we could compete in a number of different ways.”
While that New Orleans team hadn’t suffered the depths of a rebuild quite like the one Detroit went through when Campbell arrived last year, they had plodded through three consecutive 7-9 seasons.
Obviously, the Saints had future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, and a defensive anchor in Cam Jordan, but a solid draft that included cornerback Marshon Lattimore, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and running back Alvin Kamara sparked the franchise’s last, great run.
After losing the first two games that year by double digits, the Saints ripped off eight wins in a row, en route to an 11-5 finish and a trip to the divisional run of the playoffs. There they lost to the Vikings in the famous Minneapolis Miracle game. It ended up being the start of four straight winning seasons for the Saints where they claimed the NFC South title each year and averaged 12 victories.
Lions fans have been loving the steadily increasing contributions of rookies Aidan Hutchinson, Kerby Joseph, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston and the recently activated Jameson Williams, who hauled in a 41-yard touchdown pass in the victory over the Vikings.
And while that group of youngsters has unquestionably played a key role in Detroit’s recent run of success, Campbell opened his Monday news conference making sure to highlight the guys who have been around this locker room through some of the leaner times for helping set the tone for the turnaround.
“I am going to open with this because I think this is important,” Campbell said. “We’re playing better for a number of reasons, and certainly the growth has a lot to do with that, but I certainly don’t want anyone not to understand that part of all that, the biggest part of that, are guys like (Taylor) Decker and (Frank) Ragnow, J.D. (Jarrad Davis) being back, (Jason) Cabinda.
“Some of these guys that have been here, C.J. Moore, Romeo (Okwara), who have kind of been through a number of things, but, man, they’ve been steady rocks. Frank plays with stuff every week, he guts it out. Sometimes you lose sight of them. You don’t ever want to take them for granted, but they play at such a high level week in and week out. They’re a huge part of our success.”
Campbell also tipped his cap to defensive captain Michael Brockers, who only joined the Lions last season, and has been a healthy scratch much of the second half of the season as he concedes playing time to the roster’s younger talent.
“Even though he hasn’t been (active), he’s a huge part, man,” Campbell said. “He’s helped develop those young guys in that D-line room. I just don’t ever want that to be lost. Those guys are damn good players for us, but they’ve been outstanding in the locker room, they’re great leaders and they’re workers. They set the tone for everybody and those young bucks just fall right in line.”
Toughing it out
Outside of missing the Thanksgiving game while in concussion protocol, Sunday marked cornerback Jeff Okudah‘s lowest playing time percentage of the season. He finished the day logging just 27 defensive snaps as he shuffled in and out of the lineup against the Vikings.
Okudah wasn’t hurt, but he was dealing with the lingering impact of an illness that held him out of practice much of the week.
“Yeah, listen, it was a heck of a job by him just trying to gut it out,” Campbell said. “He didn’t have a ton of energy coming off what he did, but he went out there and tried to compete.”
Officially, Okudah was targeted just once in coverage, conceding a 10-yard reception to Justin Jefferson, who otherwise went off for a career-high 223 yards in the game.
Additionally, Okudah was flagged twice, once for a late hit near the sideline and again for pass interference in the end zone. But he also made one of the game’s critical defensive plays, a fourth-down tackle that forced a change of possession in the opening quarter.
“It was a huge stop,” Campbell said. “That was an unbelievable play, fourth-and-one, for him to get in there.”
The coach said he expects Okudah to be closer to full strength this week as the Lions prepare for a road matchup with the New York Jets.