Five questions about the Detroit Lions’ defense heading into the 2023 season

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions defense finished near the bottom of the league in most meaningful measures last year, but there are reasons for optimism heading into the 2023 season. Here are five of the biggest questions facing the unit.

▶ What’s the next step look like for Hutchinson?

Aidan Hutchinson looked every bit worthy of the No. 2 pick during a highly productive rookie season. Appearing in all 17 games, he racked up 52 tackles, a team-high 9.5 sacks and 53 quarterback pressures, and even chipped in an unexpected three interceptions. Most years, he’s an easy selection for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but he finished second behind a worthy choice in All-Pro cornerback Sauce Gardner.

Critically evaluating Hutchinson’s rookie campaign, you could easily argue his first-half production was inflated. Most of the sacks, including three against Washington in Week 2, were of the cleanup variety, where a teammate did the heavy lifting. But as the season progressed, and Detroit tweaked the way Hutchinson was rushing — standing him up similar to the way he operated at the University of Michigan — things really took off and the production was anything but artificial.

It’s commonly said players make their biggest developmental leap between their first and second seasons, but it almost felt like Hutchinson got a head start on that jump with how he finished his debut campaign. Maybe that’s because he logged nearly 1,000 snaps, with no signs of hitting a rookie wall. If he can somehow translate that experience and comfort level into elevating his game to an even greater level of consistency, we could see him enter the conversation as one of the game’s elite edge rushers, with the likes of Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa, T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons.

▶ Can the defensive interior finally generate a reliable pass rush?

Led by Hutchinson, Detroit’s edge depth is suddenly impressive. The team is so deep that Romeo Okwara, who led the team with 10.0 sacks in 2021, prior to tearing his Achilles, and James Houston, who exploded for 8.0 sacks in less than half a season as a rookie, spent most of training camp working with the third-string defense.

But for Detroit’s pass rush to truly take off, they’ll need better production from their interior linemen. The franchise hasn’t received consistent production from that group since the departure of Ndamukong Suh nine years ago. And while no one expects Alim McNeill to suddenly morph into Aaron Donald, despite the former’s remarkable body transformation this offseason, it’s time for the third-year pro to deliver a steadier supply of pocket disruption.

McNeill generated a respectable 29 quarterback pressures last season, but the figure loses some of its luster when you realize 10 came in one game. After cutting 13% of his body fat this offseason, without sacrificing strength, an average of three pressures per game with five or six sacks would be a monumental boost to the overall defense.

In addition to McNeill, the Lions stand to benefit from former second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike being healthy for the first time in his career. He was drafted with the promise of pass-rush productivity and has flashed as much during camp and the preseason this offseason.

Anything else the Lions could get from Isaiah Buggs, Benito Jones and rookie Brodric Martin would be a cherry on top.

MORE: Five questions about the Detroit Lions’ offense heading into the 2023 season

▶ Will tweaks stop run-game leaks?

Everyone knows the Lions were one of the worst defensive teams in football last season. Much of those struggles originated from an inability to effectively stop the run. Opponents averaged an ugly 5.2 yards per carry last season, and the Carolina game near the end of the year was the blackest on eyes on an otherwise respectable second-half turnaround, overall.

In that contest, the Lions gave up 320 rushing yards to a backfield led by the less-than-formidable tandem of D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard. That’s a breakdown at every level, but the biggest area of concern throughout the season was Detroit’s ability to set the edges. So many long gains came when a running back or quarterback got to the second level around the perimeter of the formation. And, of concern, the Lions had similar issues against Jacksonville during the preseason.

Allowing opponents to consistently move the ball on the ground makes everything more difficult on defense because it puts you in unfavorable down-and-distance situations, limiting the ability for pass rushers to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. And, worst case, it forces you to commit an extra defender to the box, straining your coverage in the back end and opening you up to big plays in the passing game.

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn tweaked the way his front will play the run, committing to a gap-and-a-half approach, which shouldn’t rob the unit of its aggressiveness. But, if the Lions can’t make major improvements after last year’s struggles, the defense is going to find the path out of the NFL’s basement to be a rocky road.

▶ Is a parade of interceptions on the way?

From a personnel standpoint, the most notable upgrades came in the secondary. The Lions spent big on defensive backs in free agency, signing cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, as well as safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. They completed the makeover by snagging Brian Branch on the second day of the draft. And he’s been so good from the jump that he’s in line to be the team’s starting nickel corner, surprisingly pushing Tracy Walker to a reserve role.

The most exciting component of the back end’s evolution is the Lions suddenly have the makings of a ball-hawking unit. Second-year safety Kerby Joseph showed his playmaking potential as a rookie, Gardner-Johnson led the NFL in interceptions last season and Branch has been a magnet to the ball all offseason.

The Lions finished in the middle of the pack, with 12 interceptions a year ago, the most they registered in five years. If the defensive front lives up to its potential, improving against the run and getting pressure on the quarterback, it’s easy to see Detroit near the top of the league in picks in 2023.

▶ How long before a rookie grabs a starting job and won’t let go?

Bucking current trends, the Lions used a first-round draft pick on a linebacker, selecting Jack Campbell out of Iowa with the No. 18 choice. The move was largely panned by critics, but the impact a top-tier middle linebacker can have on an NFL defense is indisputable. And given the investment, Detroit clearly believes Campbell can eventually be the elite field general.

Throughout his first offseason, you saw glimpses of the vision. In an era where linebackers are shrinking to counter speed-and-space offensive schemes, he’s supersized at 6-foot-5, but still moves like a much smaller player, exploding to the ball with an elite mix of speed, agility and physicality.

Coverage will be a work in progress, but that’s true for just about every young linebacker entering the league. Where he might shock some people is his ability as a blitzer, given he rarely got an opportunity to get after the quarterback while at Iowa.

As it currently stands, it appears Campbell will open the season as part of a timeshare with Derrick Barnes and Malcolm Rodriguez. That’s not a knock on the rookie as much as the two young veterans have earned their playing time. That said, it’s clear to everyone that Campbell is the future, and as he sands the rough edges with experience, the Lions are going to have an increasingly difficult time taking him off the field.

It’s not really a matter of if, but when that fact becomes undeniable.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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