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Detroit Lions mailbag: What’s with the slow start for the defensive line?

We answer your questions on the Lions’ defense—and a whole bunch on Detroit’s messy linebacker situation.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL via Imagn Content Services, LLC

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

Let’s get started!

What is the likelihood of Barnes getting the green dot from Anzalone? Alternately, is there any other candidate for the green dot? My feeling has been the green dot is always an inside LB. — NorEastSida

Jeremy: Behind the scenes last week, I joked with Erik that we’d answer a Derrick Barnes question every week, since we were constantly being asked when he’s going to play. Dan Campbell kind of ruined the fun this week by nearly stating outright that Barnes is going to get his shot this week, and then Jamie Collins went straight to the trading block. Obviously from Campbell’s comments, it seems like Alex Anzalone is there to stay, but do you believe Barnes’ long-term outlook is to eventually be the signal-caller of this defense?

Erik: Long-term, probably. This season, probably not. I think they’ve hitched their wagon to Anzalone for better or worse. Calling a defense can be complicated and Anzalone has been working in a scheme with the same terminology for the past four years. Meanwhile, Barnes has only one year of experience as an off-the-ball linebacker. He’ll have a hard enough time trying to acclimate to the NFL and coaches likely won’t want to bog him down with additional tasks.

Jeremy: And with Anzalone on a one-year deal, they can spend the entire 2022 offseason grooming Barnes to be that guy.

Erik: The Barnes era has arrived early in Detroit.

Do you think Anzalone is getting a longer leash because Campbell recruited him to come from New Orleans with him? — Westbrook Okudah

Erik: I do think he gets a longer leash than others, but it’s probably because of his effort as opposed to his relationship with coaches. That being said, as I mentioned in the previous section, knowing the coaches and scheme puts him in a much better situation than other veterans who are new to the team. Am I off base, Jeremy?

Jeremy: Not at all. Effort + knowing the scheme puts him ahead of a lot of people on this defense.

I know a lot of people are pissed or concerned that Campbell praised Anzalone’s performance in the Packers game, but a lot of what he said was true. He was all around the ball all game. The dude has a tremendous motor and you’ll never see him dogging a play. And, yeah, the touchdown he gave up to Robert Tonyan wasn’t bad coverage. It was an incredible throw from Aaron Rodgers. Anzalone’s performance wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even good, but I do think people overreacted to how bad it was.

Jeremy: Okwara was one person who really stood out upon rewatching the Packers game. I thought he did a great job setting the edge and provided a handful of pressures in the passing game, as well. Now has he taken the next step as a premier pass rusher in this league? No, he still has plenty of room to grow there, and I suppose there’s a very small level of disappointment there given how good he was in camp. But at this point, I’m also not very concerned about his zero sacks through two games. Per PFF, he has nearly half (10) of the team’s 24 pressures.

Erik: I’ll take 10 pressures through two games all day. Only six Lions on the 2020 team had 10 pressures or more over the entire season. And yes, as Jeremy points out, he has nearly half the team’s total pressures and more than triple any one Lions defender. Now, I’d like to see those pressures turned into sacks, and while he’s not there yet, I think those stats will come.

Erik: I feel like Week 3 was always a critical game for the last coaching staff. From what I can recall they won the third game all three seasons. But, was that just a Patricia thing or will Week 3 be a turning point for Dan Campbell and his staff too? It’s hard to say for certain. Beating the Ravens will be a daunting task but the Lions did find themselves in games recently—right up until they imploded. If they can play more disciplined and keep that implosion at bay, they could surprise us.

Jeremy, do you share my “so you’re saying there’s a chance” view?

Jeremy: Ehhhhhh, not really. The Lions got handed a crummy hand with this schedule. The Lions' defense is going to take a lot of time to get better, and they have to face three dynamic offenses to start the season. Based on Detroit’s defense through two weeks, I have little faith they’ll be able to slow the Ravens’ historically good rushing attack. And while I’m as excited as everyone about Barnes getting in the game, handing him Lamar Jackson and/or Mark Andrews responsibilities is a tough ask in potentially his first start.

So that means the Lions' offense will be required to try and pull off a perfect performance. Last week, they almost got a full three-quarters of perfect play, and I’ve generally been very impressed with the job Anthony Lynn has done on that side of the ball. But the Ravens have a pretty good defense that will likely get Detroit out of rhythm at times. Even if they get them out of rhythm once, that may be enough.

Thought Goff had a pretty solid 1st half and I thought the offensive line was outstanding all game. During camp, most analysts agreed that a good O-line and a decent running game should allow Goff to excel. So what the heck happened in the 2nd half? With good O-line performance shouldn’t we expect better QB play? — Jayare100879

Jeremy: This is a good question, and a good opportunity to address why I still gave Goff a B- grade in my post-game report card. The truth is nothing really changed. The Lions were effective through the third quarter, too. Goff led a promising eight-play, 50-yard drive to start the third quarter that ended in a disappointing, hurried fourth-down failure. Then he fumbled on the next offensive snap. Then the ball slipped out of his hands again on a critical third down.

And because the defense couldn’t get off the field, Goff simply didn’t have much of an opportunity to make up for these mistakes. The Packers dominated time of possession in the second half, and with Green Bay scoring on each of the first three possessions in the second half, Detroit had to play from behind, which is simply not how they are going to succeed. The Packers dialed up the pressure in the fourth quarter knowing that the run game was out of the question and it worked.

Erik: Solid, logical explanation. And I do agree with most of our assumptions that the running game has alleviated some pressure off Goff, but to be frank, he is still a flawed quarterback that is working on gaining his confidence back and he is going to make mistakes along the way. You just have to hope those mistakes aren’t critical turnovers in the future.

When Lions restructured Goff’s contract, the thinking here was that this move was necessary to free up cap space needed for 2021 to sign the rookie class and field a full roster. In hindsight and knowing where the Lions cap status today, was this restructure really necessary? — zjmeyers

Erik: The cap is a fluid thing and you need available space in order to operate during the season. For example, when a team places a player on injured reserve, that player’s salary still counts against the cap, yet the team needs to have available funds to sign replacement players to the active roster. When a player returns from IR, the team typically cuts another player and it frees some of the money back up again. On average, teams keep $8 -10 million on hand for these types of in-season moves.

Currently, the team already has eight players on injured reserve, and their available cap space sits around $5 million in available funds. Enough to manage some roster movement throughout the rest of the season.

So back to Goff. His extension freed up $15 million in workable space. Without that restructure, the Lions wouldn't have had enough funds to operate their in-season roster moves. So yeah, as much as people didn’t like the move at the time, they needed to do it.

Jeremy: Having some extra cap space on hand can also come in hand should you want to eat a crappy contract of a player you want to trade, too, and limit the amount of dead cap in future years.

What’s up with the D-line?

Side question: that taco sandwich from taco bell, that a taco or a sandwich? — A Fella

Jeremy: Most important question first: A taco is already a sandwich, so the answer is both. A taco is basically a wrap, and a wrap is undeniably a sandwich. I will take no further questions on that matter.

Erik: Um... so, the defensive line has not lived up to its training camp billing and I’m not sure I can put a finger on exactly why. They’ve been average at best and that’s a far cry from what we saw in the early stages of camp. Could injuries be a factor? Several defensive linemen are either dinged up or working their way back from injury. Maybe it’s a chemistry issue? With all the injuries they haven’t worked together much. Or maybe it’s just that the 49ers and Packers offenses are really good. I’m not sure if it’s one of these guesses, all of them, or something completely different. Help me out Jer.

Jeremy: Well, here’s the good news: they’re trending in the right direction. I agree that they haven’t lived up to their preseason billing, but there were a lot of positive developments from the Packers game. There was more pressure without the need for blitzing. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon averaged just 3.86 yards per carry.

And let’s remember who’s getting the most reps right now: Michael Brockers—a veteran who didn’t play at all in training camp—and Nick Williams—a guy who missed a good chunk of practice due to injuries and COVID. Last week, defensive line coach Todd Wash openly admitted those guys looked like they hadn’t played in some time.

“You could tell (Brockers) was rusty. You could tell Nick was rusty with the amount of reps he had during training camp. But we’ve really gave them a lot of reps this week to get them in position to play. They were playing a little bit high in the game and I think both of them had a really good week.”

If you need more evidence of their improvement, here are the week-to-week PFF scores.

Michael Brockers

  • Week 1: 44.1
  • Week 2: 60.7

Nick Williams

  • Week 1: 55.9
  • Week 2: 60.3

It’s not where they want to be, but this is their preseason. Give them time.

Obviously, Matt Nelson is the weak link on the offensive line right now. Do you think the Lions entertain putting Stenberg at RG and move Vaitai to RT until Decker comes back? — Kdog060

Erik: It’s an interesting thought, and one I expect OL coach Hank Fraley to have considered, but I’m not sold that it would be an upgrade. I agree with Kdog060 that Nelson is the weak link right now, and while Vaitai would be an upgrade at right tackle, how big of a drop-off is it to Stenberg at right guard?

Stenberg is a real mystery because we have only seen him play in parts of three preseason games and he was up against several players who aren’t in the league right now. The potential is there for Stenberg to succeed in the NFL, but it’s hard to say he’s ready right now and I’m not sure if I’d want to rock the boat.

Jeremy, you down for some OL shuffling, or are you sticking with what’s working?

Jeremy: I picked this question out, because there has even been some talk of moving Decker to left guard, Jonah Jackson to right guard and Vaitai to right tackle. I think that’s way too much movement in the middle of the season—especially when everything is working out pretty fine right now.

But to answer your question, no. Please don’t do this. Vaitai actually looks settled in, and most believe he’s best suited on the inside. Remember, he’s a much better run blocker than pass blocker, so throwing him on the outside is not that much of an improvement over Nelson.

I do believe there needs to be someone seriously pushing for Nelson’s job, though. I would much rather see Will Holden at right tackle than moving everything around.