Last year, the Detroit Lions weren’t getting much out of their edge defenders. While Trey Flowers was doing just fine, Devon Kennard provided very little for the defense, especially when it came to pass rushing. This graph that traveled the internet really highlighted the issues the Lions were having with Kennard. He was very rarely double teamed, yet provided almost no pressure for Detroit:
Via @SethWalder: Double team rate as an edge (x) by pass rush win rate as an edge (y) for the 2019 season.— Chely Lobatón (@chelylobaton) September 8, 2020
PRWR = rate pass rusher beats blocker in 2.5 secs.
There’s more to EDGE Rushers than sacks. Titans got one of the most impactful defensive players in the league w/Clowney. pic.twitter.com/uA9WkuOgJ4
So this offseason, the Lions decided to cut ties with Kennard, despite him being a vocal leader of the defense. To many fans’ dismay, however, they did not appear to replace Kennard during free agency. They did add Julian Okwara in the third round of the NFL Draft, but it was clear he was more of a long-term project.
Instead, it has been his brother, Romeo Okwara, who has stepped up in a big way in 2020. Through seven weeks of the NFL season, Okwara is now knocking on the door of being a top-10 edge rusher in the NFL. Yes, I am serious.
He may only have 4.0 sacks on the season, but his pressure rate is outstanding. According to ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric—which tallies a “win” every time the defender beats his blocker in 2.5 second or less—Okwara is now 10th among all edge defender. Per PFF’s Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) statistic—which combines sacks, hits and hurries—Okwara is tied for sixth in the league. And his overall pass rush grade is a solid 71.7 (20th among edge defenders).
This is a huge jump in production for Okwara. He had just 1.5 sacks last year, and although he had 7.5 back in 2018, his pass rush grade was just 50.3, suggesting he was benefiting more from the players around him. But this year, it’s all about Okwara, and head coach Matt Patricia has taken notice:
“I think Romeo has been unbelievable,” Patricia said after Okwara’s two-sack performance against the Falcons. “Really he and Trey Flowers are two guys that come to work every single day and they make each other better. They really spend a lot of time together talking about the game and techniques and how they practice, they stay after practice a lot and they work on individual just fundamental skills and stuff like that, and I think you can just see the growth that Romeo has had certainly just being out there and playing and getter better every single week, but it’s not a surprise because he works really hard.”
As a result of his hard work—and some schematic changes out of the bye—the Lions overall pass rush has shown massive improvements over the past few games. What was once clearly the worst pass rush after three games of the season is now showing serious week-by-week progress.
Here’s a look at their cumulative pass rush rate by week per ESPN.
After 3 games: 19 percent (32nd)
After 5 games: 32 percent (31st)
After 6 games: 37 percent (27th)
Obviously, they still have a long way to go, but in a matter of three games, the Lions managed to double their pass rushing efficiency for the year. The arrow is pointing up.