Much like the offense, it was a tale of two halves for the Detroit Lions defense against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though the Lions were able to get Ben Roethlisberger off the field quickly the first time around, the Steelers quarterback did whatever he wanted with the defense in the following drives.
However, when the Lions’ reserves came in, they seemed to hold up decently well in the second half. Pittsburgh scored just six second-half points on Saturday night, but they also just punted once all game.
The Lions' defense needs to be better, but let’s take a closer look at which positions succeeded and which ones did not.
You can find my grade for the offense here.
Defensive tackles: A-
The Lions, once again, showed that the interior defensive line is their best and deepest position. Even with all of their starters save Alim McNeill still out, Detroit was able to control the middle of the line of scrimmage. The Steelers managed just 2.9 yards per carry on the day.
Levi Onwuzurike made his NFL debut and was disruptive at times. He displayed some serious strength in the run game, whereas he usually wins with his speed. Bruce Hector continues to give the Lions a tough decision on his roster fate. Even Miles Brown, who is a roster longshot, had a very solid game.
Edge defenders: D+
Aside from a good first quarter via Charles Harris, the edge defender simply did not create enough disruption for Steelers' quarterbacks. Austin Bryant had a devastating facemask penalty that gave Pittsburgh a first down after Detroit had forced a punt deep in the Steelers’ own zone. Julian Okwara had a much quieter night than last week. In all, the Lions had just two quarterback hits on the night, and one of those came from an off-ball linebacker.
Speaking of which, no one on the field was worse than the Lions’ linebacking crew. Despite making some plays early in the game, Jalen Reeves-Maybin struggled immensely in coverage, while Jahlani Tavai continues to prove he just can’t hang at this level right now.
Thankfully, rookie Derrick Barnes came in the second half and made a ton of plays.
But here’s all you really need to know about the Lions’ linebacking corps: Steelers running backs and tight ends combined for 14 catches, 190 yards, and two touchdowns.
Jeff Okudah had an up-and-down game. Obviously, he let Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson run right by him for a 43-yard gain. Even if he was expecting safety help from Will Harris—and I believe he was—he can’t get beat that bad. He made up for it, however, with a nice pass breakup on a pass to JuJu Smith Schuster, and he also looked active in run defense.
A.J. Parker was the secret superstar of the game, tallying a pass defense, creating pressure as a blitzer, and notching two tackles for loss in run defense. He very well may have worked his way onto the roster and could realistically compete for a roster spot.
As for the rest of the cornerback depth, tackling was a huge problem throughout the game and recent outside cornerback converts Mike Ford and Bobby Price still look like they need more time.
Harris had a particularly tough game. In addition to the long pass over Okudah, he got burned badly by tight end Pat Freiermuth.
The move Pat Freiermuth puts on Will Harris here is disgusting. pic.twitter.com/UHBVaJN3xC— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) August 22, 2021
Of course, Freiermuth also beat Tracy Walker first. Walker was active in the run game, though.
Things did not get much better for Detroit’s depth at safety. With Dean Marlowe scratched, it was an opportunity for the likes of C.J. Moore, Alijah Holder, and Jalen Elliott to shine. To be fair, head coach Dan Campbell did praise the play of Elliott, but Moore missed on a few tackles and Holder played in just 16 snaps.
Special teams: D
The Lions averaged fewer yards per kick return (19.0) than the Steelers averaged in punt returns (21.3). That’s very, very bad.
However, they did recover an onside kick, and Jack Fox continues to be an animal.