Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 20-17 victory over the New York Jets.
One of the more interesting things Lions coach Dan Campbell said after the game was his honest assessment of the mood of his team after the first half.
The coach sensed an unusual tightness through the first two quarters. He got a vibe that there was a fear of failure, which was leading to uncharacteristic mistakes. So, in addition to the standard halftime adjustments, Campbell shined a light on the team’s mental state, emphasizing the need to not let the moment get too big for them.
Campbell’s consistency resonates with players. He’s made every effort to keep his approach the same, regardless of how the team is performing. One player told me this week that you couldn’t tell the difference in Campbell’s demeanor or messaging when the team was 1-6 compared to the current run of success. But the coach is observant enough to know the magnitude of the climb into playoff contention can weigh differently on a young roster that is aware of the franchise’s penchant for failure and underachieving.
As the head coach, Campbell is the Lions’ CEO. He’s responsible for setting and adjusting the tone of the culture. And, when it comes to calming guys’ nerves, he’s the perfect man for the job. He’s demanding, yet doesn’t take himself too seriously. And that may be an understatement. He doesn’t sweat being perceived as the dumb jock or giving a corny speech in a team meeting. He’s beyond comfortable in his own skin, and if a team is supposed to take on the persona of its head coach, getting them to get back to playing loose won’t be an issue.
It sure wasn’t in the second half against the Jets, with cornerback Jerry Jacobs, perhaps the least likely guy in the locker room to play tight, coming up with his first career interception. Or in the closing minutes, after being held out of the end zone all day, the offense came up with a big play on fourth down, the type of moment that tests the mental fortitude of even the most confident and experienced players.
After a nearly 14-month absence while rehabbing a torn Achilles, Romeo Okwara returned to action last week against the Vikings, logging 25 defensive snaps. If you didn’t notice, no one could blame you.
Failing to make a splash in his season debut probably should have been expected. That’s a long layoff from a serious injury, so it’s only natural there was going to be a re-acclimation period. But whatever the expectations were for the remainder of the season, he accelerated the timetable by sacking Jets quarterback Zach Wilson twice on Sunday.
That’s not to say Okwara is all the way back. He’s still working toward rediscovering his burst, and probably his stamina, but his length and strength were assets against the Jets. Those are critical components of his skill set and should allow him to continue to offer meaningful contributions down the stretch. On both of Okwara’s sacks, he was able to keep the right tackle off his frame with his reach, shed the block and dip inside to clean up the QB trying to step up in the pocket.
After having faced so many dual-threat quarterbacks this season, the Lions have been looking for edge rushers who can crush the pocket. Okwara fills the void. And paired with the hard-charging speed rush of rookie James Houston, and the steady, season-long impact of Aidan Hutchinson, the Lions finally have the makings of a reliable pass rush.
If there was one overreaction to come out of the win, it was related to quarterback Jared Goff’s underthrown deep ball to Jameson Williams that potentially cost the Lions a touchdown in the first half.
It’s the second time Goff has come up short on a bomb to Williams, although the rookie receiver had so much separation the first time, he was able to adjust, come back to the ball and secure the scoring grab. This time, it provided a window for the defender to recover and knock the throw away.
Look, there’s no reason to ignore the fact that deep passing has never been one of Goff’s strengths, but the counter to the two misfires to Williams are two perfectly placed shot plays to DJ Chark the previous two weeks. It’s not that Goff is incapable of getting the ball where it needs to be; he’s just not particularly consistent with those throws. And, with Williams specifically, there’s still a chemistry that’s being developed. Remember, we’re talking about a guy with 34 snaps and only a handful of targets.
Lions general manager Brad Holmes clearly believes in Goff’s ability to utilize the deeper portions of the field. The GM has shown not only with his free-agent signings — Chark, Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman — but also with the selection of Jameson Williams in the draft. That doesn’t mean the quarterback’s play and fit with the personnel don’t merit continued evaluation, but let’s pump the brakes on using this small sample size of two throws to a rookie as the primary justification the Lions need to draft Goff’s replacement.
During training camp, I had the opportunity to sit down with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson while piecing together a season-preview story on his offense and his relationship with Goff. But within that conversation, he made it a point to note this is the most unselfish group of players he’s ever been around during his coaching career.
As a reporter, I have to be careful to not overemphasize platitudes and hyperbole, but the deeper we get into this season, the greater appreciation I have for what Johnson was seeing then.
Look no further than Josh Reynolds as the embodiment of this selfless approach. Playing 40 snaps on Sunday, he didn’t make a dent in the box score. Not only did he not catch a pass, but he wasn’t targeted. But that’s not to say he didn’t have an impact.
For brevity, I’ll simply note the team’s first and last offensive play. On both — a pitch to running back D’Andre Swift and Brock Wright’s game-winning touchdown — Reynolds was out in front of the play, blocking. And while he didn’t exactly pancake his assignment on Wright’s score, the veteran receiver was where he needed to be, getting in the way of the defender, which allowed the second-year tight end to cut back inside and get across the goal line.
Every week, different players on the offense see their roles grow and shrink, often significantly, but there’s never been a sense of discontent coming out of the locker room. That attitude and approach shouldn’t be lost in Detroit’s turnaround.