When it came to the Detroit Lions run defense last Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks were met with little resistance. Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny set a career high with 170 rushing yards on just 25 carries. As a team, the Seahawks rushed for 265 yards on the ground, 72 more yards than they had in any other game this season.
Detroit’s failures on that side of the ball have many wondering if the Lions’ draft picks aren’t playing up to expectation. Rookie defensive tackles Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike—along with linebacker Derrick Barnes—are all critical to Detroit’s run defense, and each of them played over 50 percent of the defensive snaps on Sunday.
But during his weekly appearance on local radio station 97.1 The Ticket, head coach Dan Campbell provided some clarity on Detroit’s struggles on defense. Campbell said that while the defensive interior has some part of the blame, Detroit was having far too many issues at the second level. In fact, he believed his two nose tackles—McNeill and second-year defender John Penisini—played very well.
“Alim McNeill played one of his better games,” Campbell said. “I though Penisini played pretty good.”
Campbell’s statement is backed up by PFF, for what it’s worth. McNeill, a third-round pick, earned a 75.8 PFF grade, which was his second-best mark of the season.
That said, Campbell did point out that he’d like to see more consistency out of Onwuzurike, the team’s second-round pick this year.
“Levi is kinda what he’s been,” Campbell said. “He’s been up and down. He flashed. Man, he shows out, and the next play, it’s a learning experience. Next play, he shows out. Next play, it’s a learning experience. So there’s just some inexperience there that he’s still having to get over—bumps in the road—which he will.”
As for the second-level issues, Campbell was very upfront about the play of Barnes. Detroit leaned on him more this week, and the Lions head coach wants more than he got out of him.
“He’s got to play better,” Campbell said. “He’s got to play better, and I thought he took a step back. We need more from our stack-backers. You asked me and I would say, yeah, he’s improving. He’s learning, he’s growing, and not that he’s not (growing), but after last week, he took a step back.”
The problem, according to Campbell, is that while Barnes isn’t repeating old mistakes, he’s the kind of player—like most rookies—that needs to make the mistakes to learn from them.
“I think with Derrick, there’s things that he learns from that he doesn’t have to make a mistake to learn from, but then there’s enough of these where, honestly, he’s got to stick his hand in the fire before he realizes that it is hot,” Campbell explained. “You can’t just tell him. He’s got to figure it out himself.”
The Lions’ young roster will have one more opportunity to get better and learn from its mistakes, as the NFC’s top-seeded Green Bay Packers are in town this week for the 2021 season finale. The Packers entered Week 17 with the sixth-best rushing attack in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, and all signs indicate that they will play their starters, despite already having a first-round bye locked up.
Campbell is clearly eager for the opportunity to go against the league’s best, and potentially beat them.
“That would be awesome. What’s better than that? You’re going to get a fully-loaded Green Bay Packer team for the last game of the year, and you’ve got a chance to end on a high note.”