The first few weeks of the NFL season are very much a feeling-out process. Training camp and the preseason certainly help players get acclimated to the grind ahead, but there’s nothing that can quite replicate going live for four quarters of an NFL regular season matchup.
After three weeks, we can start to make some educated assumptions about a team knowing full well that injuries, situational matchups, and even the weather itself can throw a wrench into anything you may think you know about a team.
For this Detroit Lions team, we have some data courtesy of Pro Football Focus that can help us better understand the football the Lions have played thus far—and how they’ll continue to play from here on out. Let’s take a closer look at the Lions by the numbers after their loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3.
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First and foremost, Detroit’s defense is predicated on stopping the run. General manager Brad Holmes has heavily invested draft capital in an effort to fortify the Lions run defense, selecting four players in the first two rounds of his first couple of drafts to stiffen up Detroit’s defensive front. Only two of those players are on the field—Alim McNeill and Aidan Hutchinson—while both Levi Onwuzurike and Josh Paschal are working to return to the field soon.
The Lions are counting on their depth up front to keep things afloat in the meantime, and for the first two weeks, it’s been a mixed bag of both good and bad. It’s been Detroit’s second-level defenders, the likes of rookie Malcolm Rodriguez and Alex Anzalone, that have held up well in run defense.
In Week 3 against the Vikings, however, things took a turn for the worst. Detroit’s approach to stopping Minnesota’s running attack saw them put the onus on the backend of their defense to crash down and clean up the push provided by Detroit’s defensive front. The results were borderline disastrous: the Lions had nine (9) missed tackles in run defense against the combination of Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, and six (6) of those missed tackles came from Detroit’s secondary. Through the first two weeks of the season, the Lions had just eight (8) missed tackles against the run. For a team that wants to pride itself on run defense, that’s an area where they’ll have to clean things up moving forward.
D’Andre Swift exploded onto the scene this season with explosive plays both on the ground and through the air, but a laundry list of injuries hampered his usage and effectiveness in Week 3. Already dealing with an ankle injury, Swift suffered a shoulder injury that further limited his ability against the Vikings, but Detroit’s running back depth, specifically Jamaal Williams, was up to the task.
Williams made the most of his opportunity, shouldering the workload for Detroit and putting together an impressive afternoon as the Lions lead back. Two touchdowns and an efficient day carrying the ball (4.4 yards per carry) helped Detroit stay committed to their gameplan despite Swift’s injuries, but four (4) runs of 10+ yards and 2.75 yards after contact per attempt help illustrate just how effective and efficient Williams was running the football against Minnesota. For context, Williams had just 13 carries of 10+ yards last season for Detroit, and Williams career average is 2.61 yards after contact per attempt.
If Williams can hold down Detroit’s ground game with more performances of hard-nosed, efficient running like he did in Week 3, the Lions can be confident in their approach to running the ball despite not having Swift in the lineup.
6, 3, 9 for 79
Playing through a back injury is no easy thing to do, and it was clear Amani Oruwariye struggled in his return to action against the Vikings. Oruwariye found himself getting picked on by Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense throughout the game, but it was the penalties Oruwariye accrued over the course of the game that proved to be costly.
Detroit’s No. 2 cornerback was flagged six (6) times last Sunday, two of which were offset or declined, but the Lions were charged with seven penalties overall for 59 yards. Unfortunately, the struggles weren’t only infractions. Oruwariye had three (3) missed tackles against the Vikings and allowed nine (9) catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in coverage.
Detroit’s lack of depth at outside corner likely played a factor in Oruwariye staying in the game because for all things considered, this was probably the worst outing for his professional career. For a positional group dealing with a whole host of injuries coming into the season, many expected Oruwariye to be the steady contributor of the group, but he’ll have to keep a short memory and get back on track for Detroit to have confidence in him holding down his side of the field.
2 for 9
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the rising star of the Lions No. 1 cornerback, Jeff Okudah.
Recovery athleticism from Jeff Okudah (CB #1 right of screen) v. Justin Jefferson— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) September 26, 2022
(he's back, folks) pic.twitter.com/VB57i1bFdq
Okudah has been a man on a mission this season, taking on some of the best receivers in the NFL and keeping them in check. Week 3’s matchup against Justin Jefferson was no different. Okudah allowed just two (2) completed passes for 9 yards when covering Jefferson—a player who accumulated 232 yards receiving and two touchdowns through his first two weeks of action.
Considering the road to recovery Okudah has traversed since suffering an Achilles injury in Week 1 of last season, the returns this season have only pointed towards him being a player Detroit should feel validated selecting third overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. If Detroit can count on this level of play from Okudah this season, or at least something in the ballpark of his play so far, the Lions secondary is suddenly in a much better place than people could have anticipated in the here and now—as well as the future.