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Week 9 Mailbag: Can coach Dan Campbell motivate the Lions to a victory?

Other topics covered this week include, roster evaluation, building trust, opportunities for young players, and can this season be viewed as successful?

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It’s time for another edition of the AskPOD Mailbag, where Jeremy Reisman and Erik Schlitt answer a handful of your questions about the Detroit Lions.

Let’s get started!

How can Dan Campbell keep the team together despite all the losses and the possibility of going 0-17. I know that he was on the 0-16 2008 Detroit Lions squad, so how MCDC can motivate the team to play above their talent and get a win? — whatevergong82

Erik: We all knew that the first year of a rebuild was going to be tough because the team was going to lack overall talent. With massive amounts of dead cap, fully turning over position groups, and a rash of unanticipated injuries to key players, it’s been too much to overcome most weeks. What’s interesting is that we have seen a common theme of competitiveness emerge this season.

After a heartbreaker against Baltimore in Week 3, the very next week the Lions laid an egg in Chicago. They were competitive in Week 5 against the Vikings (losing on a last-second field goal, again) only to look terrible against the Bengals the following week. Week 7 saw the Lions pull out all the stops against the Rams only to follow that close game up with another disaster the following week.

While we are currently sitting with an awful taste in our mouth after last Sunday’s disastrous effort, I think we have seen a few key examples that Campbell can indeed motivate his players to play above their talent level. And while there are some seriously tough matchups ahead (Browns, Cardinals, Packers) there are some teams also facing adversity (Bears, Vikings, Broncos, Falcons) that could provide the Lions an opportunity to get a victory.

They one need it to happen once, right Jeremy?

Jeremy: While I certainly think 0-17 is possible, I don’t think it’s probable. Seems like this fan base has found itself on the opposite end of the spectrum each of the past six weeks. One week, Dan Campbell is in over his head, the next he’s got this team punching above its weight class and is doing what he needs to put them in a position to win.

Campbell talked a lot on Monday about how he knew this team was going to face adversity in Year 1, and they built this franchise knowing that. Sure, they’re facing more adversity than they probably envisioned, but the addition of veterans like Michael Brockers and Alex Anzalone plus a coaching staff full of former players was to help these other young players weather the storm. So far, despite last week’s disastrous game, I still think the team is emotionally where they need to be. They just need to play better, and that should come with time and reps.

For me, the entire goal of 2021 was to be better in December than they were in September. I still have a good amount of faith in this coaching staff that that will happen, and with it a win or two.

Jeremy: The Lions simply have to do something at wide receiver. They’ve already shuffled personnel a few times between Trinity Benson, KhaDarel Hodge, and Geronimo Allison, but I think the focus needs to be more on playing to these players’ (admittedly minimal) strengths. Campbell alluded to this after the Eagles game, hoping to get Amon-Ra St. Brown more involved:

I think we need to look long and hard at St. Brown. There, for example, are there things that we can use him, that we can do that really will help him help us. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. We have to start looking at some of these guys. We know that ‘Lif (Kalif Raymond) can help us in certain things. Where do we, is there a better way to do it? Is there a better place to put him? Are there more targets that we should be getting to some of these guys, maybe?

To me, that’s the biggest part of this roster that has shown little-to-no signs of improvement this year, and is holding the offense back more than anything else—yes, including Jared Goff.

I realize now I kind of avoided the question, so maybe you can tackle it more directly, Erik. Are there any parts of the roster you see that could use a roster shakeup? And perhaps more importantly, are there any players waiting in the wings that deserve a shot? Because that’s my concern. They’ve given a lot of players shots already. I’m not exactly seeing hidden gems on this practice squad or anything.

Erik: I think the perceived gems on the practice squad just ran out of elevation eligibility, as tight end Brock Wright and safety Jalen Elliott were brought up from the practice squad each of the last two weeks and played key roles. With no elevations remaining, if the Lions want to play them again, they’ll need to sign them to the active roster—and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that happens before they travel to Pittsburgh.

I’m expecting Wright to be signed and challenge Darren Fells for TE2 duties, while Elliott gets signed and challenges for the fourth and possibly the third safety role. Elliot saw reps over C.J. Moore (the current fourth safety) and like Fells at tight end, Dean Marlowe (safety three) is on a one-year deal and has been a healthy scratch this season.

Beyond shaking up the tight end and safety groups, as Jeremy noted, they need to find the right combination of receivers. Raymond and St. Brown are locked in, but beyond that, everything should be up for grabs.

While I expect those position groups to get shaken up, I also expect a redistribution of snaps over the back half of the season, as coaches give their draft picks—especially on the defensive side of the ball—more playing time.

Is it possible Goff is missing open receivers or is it just that he doesn’t trust them? I have a hard time believing otherwise when he only threw to one receiver Sunday and that was Amon-Ra St. Brown. If it’s a trust issue what can the staff do to change that as it makes it pretty easy to gameplan against us when the other teams know that fact. — Kdog060

Erik: I think it’s both. I think there are plenty of times Goff isn’t making the right read, or simply misses a throw, but there are also plenty of situations where the receivers aren’t getting open or are running the wrong route, and that makes it hard for Goff to trust them to do their job.

Let me add a third problem to the mix. I also believe that the Lions’ offensive play calling isn’t helping the situation. Not only was St. Brown the only receiver to catch a pass in Week 8, but Kalif Raymond was also the only receiver to catch a pass in Week 7. Yes, lack of execution by the Lions’ skill players will dictate play calls leaning towards specific players but it’s offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s job to call plays that get players involved.

So what can the staff do to fix it? It starts with play calling and game planning. It’s far too easy to just feed T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift, and if the Lions want to take the attention off of those two players they need to get others involved.

With the bye week upon them, this is the perfect opportunity for coaches to add some wrinkles into their playbook. And I don’t mean more trick plays either. I mean simple quick hitting routes that get players involved. How about a rub route? A jet sweep? A screen pass to the fullback?

Get others involved, open up room for top players, build trust! Simple, right?

Jeremy: Yeah, as I alluded to in the previous question, I don’t think the coaching has been particularly good with this wide receiver corps, both in terms of development and playing to their strength. The more and more I watch tape, the less and less I find to blame Goff about. That isn’t to say he isn’t blameless, but man, they’re putting him in a tough spot.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have any specific answers here. In order for Goff to trust these guys, they need to make plays. And in order for these guys to make plays, Goff needs to trust them. It’s a vicious cycle that I’m not really sure the Lions will be able to break with the current talent level they have at wide receiver.

Why aren’t this year’s second (Levi Onwuzurike) and third-round (Alim McNeill) draft picks playing more (last week’s snap count 45% and 42% respectively with the former a career-high)? — Gordon B

Jeremy: I think with Alim McNeill, what you see is what you get. A nose tackle is never going to play 70-80 percent of snaps in this scheme, and outside of last week’s game plan—which was clearly aimed at stopping the run with a high rotation of interior defenders—McNeill will be the team’s No. 1 nose and average somewhere between 35 and 55 percent of snaps for a good portion of his career.

With Onwuzurike, they clearly wanted to ease him into his rookie season after the back injury scare. Now he’s starting to get a serious dose of playing time, but because he’s been pretty inconsistent—often playing way too high—he quite frankly hasn’t earned a starting job.

That being said, given that both Michael Brockers and Nick Williams are coming off of their worst games of the season, I think you’ll likely see both get an uptick in playing time out of the bye. Although I’m curious to what you think, Erik, about how the returns of Da’Shawn Hand (who was basically just a pass rushing specialist vs. the Eagles) and Kevin Strong will impact this rotation.

Erik: I actually don’t think the depth chart/rotation will change much with the return of Hand and Strong. Brockers and Williams are established leaders, but I agree with Jeremy here, they will start to lose snaps to the rookies over the back half of the year.

Hand and Strong, while possessing plenty of potential, will probably stay in pass rushing roles for the foreseeable future. Not only will they have to work through rehab, but they’re significantly behind the other interior defensive tackles in scheme experience. To make matters worse, both are in the final year of their contracts (Hand is unrestricted and Strong a restricted free agent in 2022) and likely won’t take developmental snaps away from the rookies. Quite simply, they feel like third-stringers at the moment and there’s not a lot of long-term motivation to get them work.

Erik: Inevitably, people will pass judgment on this organization based on their win-loss record, but I am in the camp that this season is all about developing the core players on this roster and establishing a culture. So yes, I think this season can be viewed as successful even if they have the worst record in the NFL, but we are only halfway through the season and there is a lot more development that needs to happen before we can get to that conclusion.

Jeremy: I’m with you there, and agree that development absolutely needs to continue through the final two months of the season. We need to see this rookie class get better than the level of play we’re currently seeing. I like what I’m seeing out of Penei Sewell, Derrick Barnes, AJ Parker, and Jerry Jacobs, but I need to see more from the likes of St. Brown, Onwuzurike, McNeill, and second-year EDGE Julian Okwara.

And, sadly, the Lions were robbed of development for a bunch of key players due to injuries. I don’t think it can be overstated how devastating the Achilles injury to Jeff Okudah was not only for him personally, but for this franchise’s future at cornerback. Same with Romeo Okwara, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and even Quintez Cephus.

So I do think this year still has the potential of being “successful,” but they’re not there yet. You can start to see a general nucleus of who this team could build around going forward, but there’s also no guarantee that each young player’s trajectory will remain up. I need more.