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Reasons for hope in a failed 2019 Detroit Lions season: Defensive Front Seven

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Trying to find some positives in the Lions’ weakest unit.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

After taking a look at the team’s season on offense, we’re going to give the same treatment to their defense. It’s very easy to view your favorite team as binary. Either they suck at everything and the walls are falling down (the Same Old Lions crowd, in this instance) or everything has a purpose and all will be well (The “Next Year” and Tanking crowd). The truth always lies somewhere in the middle, and that’s where I’ve been with the Lions despite all the noise this season.

There’s something going on that can be very positive for this franchise, but I’m not oblivious to the obvious problems the team has faced nor the hardships they’ve dealt with as the season wore on. It’s nuanced, but I’m going to attempt to lay out what I think the team is doing and where I think the team is headed.

The Defense

This is the part that is going to lose a lot of people to the comments section. Any mention of anything good on defense and the flurry of “Three-Man Rush SUCKS!” and “Defensive Genius my ARSE!” begins to gain intensity. As it is, this is very clearly the area the Lions were in the most trouble on the season. Expected to be a bright spot after a stronger finish to 2018, this unit seemed to be headed on the right track early in the year before they collapsed. And boy did they ever collapse. We’ve seen a lot of bad defenses in Detroit, but it took some meditation and research to find a defense that had worse flaws than this one has had. It’s not ALL bad, though. There were, believe it or not, some things that looked good and could be bright spots going forward.

The Pass Rush

Didn’t exist. Both schematically and from a personnel perspective, this was a painful one to watch. Fans who are old enough to remember Robert Porcher have been waiting for a real, dangerous rush on the defensive side of the ball and remain waiting. Hell, people old enough to remember Cliff Avril or Ziggy Ansah are waiting as well. It was a real horror show and whether you want to blame it on the three-man rush or the personnel, you’d have a strong argument.

Schematically, rushing three as often as the Lions have has advantages and disadvantages. We got to see the advantages early on in the season as the Lions defense largely corralled Patrick Mahomes when the Lions played them early on, keeping the team toe to toe with an offensive juggernaut when there seemed to be every reason the team would get blown out. It also helped contain more mobile quarterbacks like Kyler Murray and Aaron Rodgers early on. The defense, as a whole, didn’t hold, but the philosophy was solid. Teams like the Packers and, of course, the Patriots are able to utilize a similar philosophy with success.

Those teams do it differently, though, and there’s a reason they find success. The Packers signed both Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith in the offseason and both of those players found immediate success rushing the passer. The Patriots have utilized one of the better secondaries in the NFL with Stephon Gilmore building a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year due to his ability to shut down passers on the regular.

The Lions seem to be favoring the latter approach while trying to utilize parts of the former. Matt Patricia clearly favors his secondary and linebackers over his defensive line, but the personnel simply isn’t there to employ this type of a defense. Trey Flowers has been a one-man wrecking crew as a pass rusher, but it’s the “one man” part of that which rings truer than the “wrecking crew” as he’s basically working alone. Devon Kennard rushing from the Jack is double teamed at a league low rate and finds success as a pass rusher also at a very low rate.

The Packers have Kenny Clark to steamroll offensive lineman into the backfield and collapse a pocket, but the Lions have collected a crew of nose tackles to simply hold the line of scrimmage rather than shrink it. The trio of Jarrad Davis, Jahlani Tavai, and Christian Jones have managed between them the same number of sacks (6.0) that Jarrad Davis had all by his lonesome in 2018. Romeo Okwara, who led the team in sacks in 2018, is easily the worst pass rusher on the team in 2019, ranking 54th out of 61 edge players in the NFL by PFF’s pass rushing productivity. Devon Kennard? He ranks 48th.

So that’s like, a lot of bad. Where’s that silver lining I promised? Is this some kind of perverse bait and switch where I say there’s gonna be a good thing and then, surprise, it’s just more bad things?

Let’s take a step back and look at the pass rush a bit more objectively. First, what’s going right. Trey Flowers, despite literally no help in the pass rushing game or on the back end in coverage, ranks 19th in the NFL for pass rushing productivity. That’s higher than Khalil Mack and DeMarcus Lawrence and tied with Justin Houston. It may not seem like Flowers is doing what he was paid to do, but in the face of some ridiculously long odds, he’s doing exactly that.

Injuries have played a part, but the generally poor play of the Lions linebacking corps have also hampered the team’s pass rush a bit. Jarrad Davis, with all his flaws, was one of the best blitzing linebackers in the NFL in 2018 and we just haven’t seen that from him or anyone else in 2019. Should that return, either with a current player or a draftee/free agent, that would add a dynamic that we haven’t had the benefit of seeing with an actual pass rushing end on the team.

Likewise, nose tackle Damon Harrison Sr. does his job to help force third-and-longs by being a stout run defender, but with no interior rushing threat in 2019 due to Da’Shawn Hand’s early injury and Mike Daniels injuries and ineffectiveness, there’s nobody to help flush quarterbacks outward to the ends. With Hand returning in 2020, or a draftee like Derrick Brown providing an interior push, we could see an entirely different pocket for opposing passers than we saw this season.

Finally, Devon Kennard, as mentioned, has been a relatively ineffective pass rusher. Despite a reasonable presence setting the edge, he simply doesn’t provide much in terms of pressuring the quarterbacks. Playing the Jack linebacker role, Kennard is replaceable in 2020 in any number of ways. Bringing in someone who can cause even a little bit of havoc opposite Trey Flowers could force passers to get jumpy in the pocket and release the ball earlier than they had planned or to step up into interior defenders whether they are causing pressure themselves or not.

There are a lot of moving pieces for this pass rush and the problem with the Lions is that only one of them is doing what they need to do. If any one of these pieces is corrected in 2020, the pass rush should improve substantially. If multiple pieces are fixed, either through simply getting and remaining healthy or through personnel upgrades, the thematic elements are in place to create an actual pass rush. It’s a big ask, but it’s not impossible and when your GM hits on the players it needs like he did with Flowers, it’s not as far out of the realm of possibility as the team’s current record would anger you into believing.

About those linebackers...

You could probably fire the whole lot into the sun and replace them on the market with low-tier free agents and get much of the same level of production. Second-round rookie Jahlani Tavai holds the highest PFF rating of the bunch, which should be something we’re all happy about having hit on a Day 2 pick. Instead, one simply has to look at the fact that the score is 60.5, and with every play starting with a grade of 60.0, it’s simply an average grade that ranks 29th in the NFL. Starting caliber, but not a star or even high quality. The other two, Christian Jones and Jarrad Davis, both rank in the bottom five for linebackers with at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps.

Davis actually ranks 10th in pass rushing productivity for linebackers, while the next highest individual grade for this group is 21st for run defense, exactly what you’d expect Jahlani Tavai to be good at. All three linebackers graded below average in coverage.

It’s a pretty bad group, the worst in the NFL, and I’d wager that the margin is pretty large. It’s also one of the easiest units to fix on an NFL defense. The team made on big step by drafting a low ceiling, but high floor player in Jahlani Tavai in 2019. Tavai hasn’t shown any signs of being a Pro Bowl caliber player yet, but he also hasn’t looked like a bust outside of one or two games this year (and everyone is allowed their rookie moments). He has few flaws, and while that isn’t exciting and doesn’t get the blood pressure up, if you’re looking to right a ship it helps to put down your anchor before you start working on the engine.

Having someone who simply won’t be a liability is more than what the Lions have had since DeAndre Levy’s injuries began years ago. Having that allows the team to then focus on playmakers, instead of trying to get those first and then trying to patch the holes in their game with other players like Christian Jones, who doesn’t have any reliable strengths. We always like to look at finding that one player that you can build outward from, a guy who can hold everything together, that true keystone player. That’s what the drafting of Jarrad Davis was. A keystone is useless without a foundation, which is the type of player that Tavai is.

Will it work?

This is going to be the biggest question mark of the 2020 Detroit Lions. The team requires so much work on defense it’s hard to pin down exactly what needs to be addressed first. As such, this is the area with the biggest risk that it won’t work. With possible turnover along the entire defensive line outside of Trey Flowers, there’s no guarantee the pass rush will improve in any meaningful way. With the only solid option at linebacker being a middling rookie who sustained a serious injury to end the season—and with Christian Jones’ odd mid-season contract extension—there’s not guarantee the linebackers are in any better shape in 2020. There are a lot of pieces that need to fall into place for this defensive front to be as dominant as it could be. The good news here is that they only need some of those pieces to fall into place, not all, for the defense to be better, and possibly significantly better.