Last year, the Detroit Lions' defense was one of the worst in the league by just about every measure. They allowed the second-most points, the fifth-most rushing yards, the fourth-most overall yards, and the third-highest passer rating—all while producing the third-fewest sacks and the ninth-fewest turnovers.
But during the Lions’ preseason finale last Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, “Hard Knocks” caught coach Dan Campbell saying the following over his radio.
“I think we’ve got a defense, gentlemen.”
The Lions’ first-team defense held the Steelers to three-and-outs on three of four possessions that afternoon, but could the Lions defense really see that big of a turnaround when the season starts?
On Thursday, general manager Brad Holmes and assistant general manager Ray Agnew talked extensively about the defense. While they stopped short of setting any expectations or making any specific predictions, they, too seem pretty optimistic about that unit.
Here are five reasons they pointed out.
Secondary is already answering some questions
Holmes admitted that going into this offseason, the Lions’ secondary had the biggest questions surrounding it. At safety, the Lions weren’t guaranteed to have either of their starters from 2021 back. Tracy Walker was a free agent, and the Lions didn’t have any promising depth behind it.
But the Lions were able to bring Walker back, sign DeShon Elliott in free agency and draft a developmental option in Kerby Joseph. Holmes, though, pointed to the January waiver claim of JuJu Hughes as another big move. they made.
“Making a late claim like that during the postseason you got to wait, he comes in, and so I don’t think a whole lot of noise was made about that,” Holmes said. “But that move ended up being big for us down the road.”
At cornerback, the biggest question was the status of former third overall pick Jeff Okudah. After suffering a torn Achilles in Week 1 last year, no one knew how he’d look physically by this point in the year. Not only was Okudah physically cleared by the start of training camp, but he improved enough during practices to win the starting job.
“He was challenged, and he earned it,” Holmes said. “And we were upfront and honest with him and he didn’t cower, back down or anything, he took it and he earned it. So, a lot of those questions were what were answered and it was much appreciated.“
Pass rush improvement
Of all the defensive positions, the Lions have invested most in pass rush this year. They re-signed Charles Harris to a two-year deal, spent the second overall pick on Aidan Hutchinson, and spent a couple more draft picks on edge defenders in Josh Paschal (second round) and James Houston (sixth round).
Agnew is thrilled with what Hutchinson has already accomplished in camp, and is optimistic about his future.
“I can’t stop smiling. I love the kid,” Agnew said. “The kid’s relentless, effort, and much better athlete than you thought he was in the draft process. Man, the things he can do rushing the passer, inside, off the edge, using his hands. He’s very creative as a rusher. I would just say this, we got the right one.”
Holmes was much more focused on Harris, who had a breakout season with 7.5 sacks. The Lions' general manager seems to be expecting an even bigger year out of him this year.
“In the right environment and everything that’s been around, Charles, he’s even taken another step,” Holmes said. “You come out to the grass, you look, and you’re like, ‘He even looks even more explosive than he was last year.’”
Holmes also provided a reminder that if the Lions can get back some of their injured players, this will be a deeply competitive unit.
“You tack that on with when Josh Paschal comes back, and he can provide some rush,” Holmes said. “(Romeo) Okwara, he’ll be able to apply rush. So, there’s a lot of intrigue about our pass rush.”
Linebackers step up to the challenge
Going into the spring, the linebacking corps looked like one of the weakest in the NFL, certainly the weakest unit on the team. Detroit’s only notable additions to the group were sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez and special team ace Chris Board. It appeared the starting duo would again be Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes, two players who ranked in the bottom eight of all NFL linebackers in PFF grades last season.
But linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard assured us that tight competition will bring out the best in the group. Flash forward to September and that’s exactly what we saw.
“I thought that group responded,” Agnew said. “I thought there was a lot of competition in that group. We brought in some new guys, really only had a few guys that played last year, brought in some new guys and we created competition. And I think that group responded very well.”
Of course, the main story out of the linebacker group was Rodriguez. The rookie linebacker exploded onto the scene and only took a couple weeks to go from third-team defense to first-team defense. His ability to diagnose plays instantaneously has moved expectations up from a four-phase special teamer in Year 1 to someone who is capable of contributing on defense right away, even if the Lions are still trying to temper expectations.
“Being a quarterback in high school, you know what I mean, he’s just got a level of key-in diagnose that has translated,” Holmes said. “But again, you just don’t know quickly it’s going to come but it’s come, come quick. But can’t say enough that he is a rookie. He hadn’t played an NFL game yet, so let’s just see where it goes.”
Rodriguez isn’t the only player among the group that has shown promise, though...
Young guys taking the next step
Barnes is one of many young players on this defense that the Lions are expecting to take a Year 2 jump—and the team has already seen signs of it.
“There were some guys was with us last year that are going to aid (our defense), whether it’s going to be some young guys like Derrick Barnes that’s going to take a next step,” Holmes said. “I think that it’s all coming together.”
There’s also second-year defensive tackle Alim McNeill, who is getting some buzz for breakout candidates for 2022, 2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike, and Jerry Jacobs, who appears close to a return from his injury.
Both Holmes and Agnew could not help but gush over defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn as a reason to be optimistic about the defense this year.
“The one thing that’s intriguing to me is AG,” Agnew said. “Like Brad said, he’s very talented, and when you’ve got an aggressive guy, and then you’ve got extremely athletic guys and some guys who I think are violent football players that he can use, that he has the ability to use those tools. I think is going to be a recipe of success. So, I’m excited about our defense this year, how we go this year.”
Holmes was specifically impressed with the way Glenn adjusted the defense this offseason to match the talents of the players at his disposal.
“We are very, very fortunate to be in a position to have him leading our defense,” Holmes said. “And so, (he) made some—not wholesale changes—but a tweak here and there in our scheme, but what I love about our coaching staff is everything is done for the benefit of the players. And so, that’s why those tweaks were made”