The Detroit Lions find themselves in a pretty unique situation when it comes to their outside linebacker room. Typically, a team utilizing a 3-4 base defense will keep four outside linebackers on their roster, allowing them to keep a fresh rotation on the field and have a pretty safe bench in case of injury.
The Lions have five: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Julian Okwara, Charles Harris and Austin Bryant. Five may seem like a luxury on this defensive roster, but all five players shined in the preseason and in training camp, forcing general manager Brad Holmes to keep all of them.
Outside linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard believes having that extra outside linebacker allows the team to stay sharp and competitive. The team is likely only to have four players active on gameday, so that creates an in-week competition at practice to see which four will play.
“We’re sitting with five guys, when you get that type of unique situation, it builds competition,” Sheppard said. “So to me, I take that on as if they understand that there’s only probably going to be four up on game day. So what does that do? It breeds excellence throughout the competition throughout the week. Normally you have competition in training camp. Everybody thinks training camp — competition, competition, competition. Now, why does that have to stop once the regular season starts? You still want to get better week in and week out, day in and day out, so I think it’s making everybody in the room better.”
In Week 1, the odd man out was Julian Okwara, to many fans’ surprise. Okwara got plenty of time in the preseason and proved to be a pass rushing threat. Sheppard didn’t say whether his struggles in run defense caused him to be inactive against a tough 49ers rushing attack, but he did say that sometimes their decisions will be matchup based.
“It’s predicated on, to be honest, the competitive nature throughout the week of who won the competition, and sometimes it is game plan based and game plan oriented,” Sheppard said.
Despite having a deep bench, the Lions did not rotate their outside linebackers much against the 49ers. Romeo Okwara played in all but two snaps in the game, while Flowers was sidelined for only six plays. Sheppard said that will not be typical. It was simply due to how the game played out.
“That was kinda the flow of the game. Early on in the first half, we didn’t play many plays defensively, so it’s hard to pull guys out when they’re only playing three, four snaps,” Sheppard said. “They’re like, ‘Shit, you’re taking me out? Bro, I’m fresh,’ and I’m like, ‘I got it, I got it. All right, I won't take you out.’”
So expect to see more rotation this week against the Green Bay Packers. As for Julian Okwara potentially making an appearance in Week 2. Sheppard wasn’t tipping his hand.
“It depends on if he’s up or not.”