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Detroit Lions mailbag: What is going on at safety?

Safety talk, team record, contract extensions, and defensive scheme concepts, all in this week’s Mailbag.

Baltimore Ravens v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

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!

Jeremy: Without spoiling my preview, I will say that the Bears are among a few of the easiest opponents left on Detroit’s schedule. I would just provide a warning, though. This is still a very, very good defense. Everyone noted Justin Fields getting sacked nine times last week, but did you know the Bears sacked Baker Mayfield five times in that game? We’ve seen the Lions’ offense struggle in significant portions of this season, and Chicago isn’t going to make it easy on them. Sure, the Bears' offense is a dumpster fire, but they can still run the ball fairly well. Despite last week’s disaster, I think the Bears are still an average team overall.

Personally, I’m looking at the Eagles and Falcons as the easiest games on the schedule. Right now, Atlanta isn’t doing anything well.

Erik: Boy, if they win that Falcons game late in the season (Week 16), there’s going to be a lot of fans mad about how it will impact the Lions’ draft status. Can I preemptively schedule the following week off?

Jeremy: Sorry, this is what you signed up for, buddy. Arguing about the merits of late-season wins in a lost year is an annual Lions tradition.

Erik: All jokes aside, I agree with you that those three teams look like the easiest on the schedule right now, but over the next three weeks, they will have a real chance to make some noise. After the Bears, they play the Vikings on October 10—a day they just don’t lose on—and then they host the Bengals. Those craving some Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid are probably getting mighty thirsty looking at the next three games.

Erik: I had 6-11 in our pre-season staff predictions, and I still think that is attainable. I fully believed they would lose all three games and be 0-3 to start the year, but as I just mentioned in the question above, the next three weeks could be very favorable for the Lions.

You had them at 5-12 Jeremy, any chance you’re second-guessing that?

Jeremy: I am not moving off my 5-12 prediction. Obviously, that means this team would have to go 5-9 down the stretch, and I feel that is about right for this team. The schedule remains brutal, even with these first three games out of the way. But I expect this team to upset a team or two along the way, and hopefully string together some wins near the end of the season, as their young players continue to get more experience under their belt.

As for the second question: I think Alex Anzalone would lead the way. Detroit doesn’t have a ton of depth at that position for the future, and the staff clearly likes him a lot.

Erik: In the Lions' latest Sights and Sounds video from Week 3, Anzalone was mic’d up and as the defense was about to take the field linebacker coach Mark DeLeone was shouting at him, “This is your defense! This is your defense!”—so I’m with you on Anzalone being at the top of the re-sign list.

Jeremy: Another player, and perhaps the biggest surprise thus far, is Charles Harris. I don’t know if his good play holds up for an entire season, but so far, so good. The issue with him is that the Lions already have a bunch of younger players itching for playing time behind him in Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant.

Any player I’m overlooking?

Erik: I think Kalif Raymond makes some sense at the right price. He’s proven valuable and with the wide receiver room in the middle of a turnover, he could help in 2022.

Also, this may be cheating a little bit because he will be an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, so the price tag will be minuscule, but re-signing Scott Daly (the long snapper, for those of you not versed in the Lions’ special teams) to an inexpensive offer sheet is a no brainer for me.

What the hell is going on at Safety? During the game Sunday Dean Marlowe was getting playing time, but at the expense of Walker and not Harris (who’s been a dumpster fire). Is it just a situation where they see Harris as the only “SS” on the team or is there some I/we are missing with this guy? — spdrcr557(Nate)

Jeremy: First, let me offer a correction there. The difference between Walker and Harris’ snaps was just five. Walker played 39, Harris played 44. Dean Marlowe came in and provided a ton of three-safety looks, and occasionally took time away from both of the other safeties in two-safety looks.

I think Lamar Jackson had a huge reason to do with this somewhat drastic change in strategy. We had basically seen nothing from Marlowe through two weeks, as Detroit focused on heavy sets, trying to win in the trenches against the Packers and 49ers. But with the Ravens’ high-speed attack and focusing on the edges, Detroit needed more speed out there.

That being said, getting Marlowe in on some two-safety looks was certainly a bit unexpected. What do you make of that, Erik?

Erik: Yeah, it threw me for a bit because we haven’t seen that platooning at the position this offseason or in the regular season so far. I expected Marlow to cut into Harris’ snaps (they’re similar players) and find the field in three-safety looks, but taking as many snaps away from Walker was surprising to me.

The reason they are opting to deploy the safeties this way comes down to communication, something the secondary has been struggling with.

“We just felt like when we wanted to get Marlowe in there, Marlowe’s done a pretty good job of communication,” coach Dan Campbell said on Wednesday. “There were some things that popped up, but he’s a veteran guy for us, he’s pretty steady, we know what he is, but we just felt like it was good to get all three of them in there. And so, we’re going to try to continue to rotate”

Looks like this three safety approach isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Erik: I’ve got a soft spot for Walker because I think he can become a great player in this league, but at the same time, he just had his best game of the season in Week 3, and it came while rotating. For him to become a building block for this defense, he’s going to have to prove to coaches that he can play at the level he played last week on a consistent basis and earn back his snaps.

I think he can do that, but am I letting my soft spot for him overvalue what he can actually do, Jeremy?

Jeremy: Maybe a little. The coaching staff does genuinely seem to like him a lot and the kid is still just 26 years old. This team is going to have a ton of defensive needs next year, and given that Walker hasn’t played up to expectations, he could be a fairly cheap re-signing. It should be an active offseason, so having one less hole to fill would be nice.

But at the same time, we’ve been calling this a “breakout season” for Walker almost as long as we have for Da’Shawn Hand (yes, sorry, another one of your dudes). At some point, all that potential has to turn into production, and for him to come back to Detroit in 2022, we absolutely need to see those flashes in the next three months.

Defensive scheme question: Will the 4-3 looks continue? Are the Lions going to actually have a “multiple” defense that they have been talking about for years? — Hungry Lion

Erik: Yes, when the situation calls for it, the Lions will show both 3-4 and 4-3 looks. Their base is still going to be a 3-4, but when they’re facing an athlete the likes of Lamar Jackson, they will want to get more athletes on the field. It’s not actually a big shift for the defense either. Essentially they’re removing the nose tackle in favor of a back-seven player and asking their outside linebackers to occasionally rush with their hand in the dirt.

They don’t use three off-the-ball linebackers on the field often—we saw a lot of 4-2-5 concepts in this game—but at times they had Anzalone, Derrick Barnes, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin all out there together. Initially, they would line one of them at an outside linebacker/EDGE spot, to get their five-on-the-line-of-scrimmage base look, but then they would drop that player into coverage, which makes sense as they have better cover skills than the edge rushers.

But here’s where it gets fun. After dropping the third linebacker into coverage all day, late in the fourth quarter, the Lions showed that look one more time, but this time they brought Anzalone off the edge for a sack.

Lions 43 look for Anzalone’s sack, Yellow = Off-the-ball LB, Light Blue = EDGE, Dark Blue = DT

Credit to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn for setting up that look all day and then blitzing out of it at a critical moment. And it worked beautifully, because on the very next play, with the Ravens now in third-and-long, Jackson has to force a throw and Amani Oruwariye comes away with an interception.

Fun right?

Jeremy: Erik with the All-22 in hand is a dangerous and beautiful thing.