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Mailbag: Who’s to blame for the Detroit Lions’ defensive struggles?

Jeremy and Erik break down everything that has gone wrong with the Detroit Lions defense over the past month or so.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Detroit Lions defense has struggled in recent weeks. Look at just the yardage totals allowed in the past five weeks:

  • vs. Ravens: 503 yards
  • vs. Raiders: 157
  • vs. Chargers: 421
  • vs. Bears: 334
  • vs. Packers: 377

When we look at advanced statistics, the problem is only magnified. Since that Week 7 game against the Ravens, the Lions defense ranks 32nd in defensive EPA and 30th in DVOA (worth noting for this week, the New Orleans Saints defense is 19th in EPA and 29th in DVOA over that time period).

So what exactly is wrong? What happened to Detroit’s early-season success? Do the Lions have a philosophical problem? A schematic problem? A personnel problem? A coaching problem? Or a combination of everything.

On this week’s Midweek Mailbag podcast, we answer a ton of questions about the Lions defense. Here’s a sample the conversations between myself and Erik Schlitt.

On improving the defense earlier in games (starts at 14:30 mark):

Jeremy: “Is it just a matter of doing something surprising to start the game? Doing something that they’re not expecting to start the game? That’s probably your best defense, right? Being unpredictable out of the gate.”

Erik: “Logic says that they’re going to come out in contain to try to establish their run defense dominance. They’ve got a top-seven defense against the run. It’s been in the top-10 all year and they want to keep it there. So, do you blitz (instead)? Do you bring pressure from the corner with (the Saints) having less pass catching options? Do you bring Brian Branch off the edge? Yes, please. I’d like to see that as much as possible.”

Is it time to start questioning Dre Bly’s coaching of the cornerbacks? (starts at 18:00 mark)

Jeremy: “Evaluating a positional coach is one of the hardest things to do from the seat of your pants, because 1) you’re not seeing exactly what they’re doing, 2) regression can (come) from a lot of things, and 3) in this particular case, I’m not so certain that the (cornerback room) is regressing. I would even look at last game—and Dan (Campbell) has said it a couple times this week—the coverage was actually not that bad against the Packers. There were a lot of opportunities where they were in phase.”

Erik: “With no pressure, when you are getting wins, you’re getting hurt because it’s hard to cover for that long.”

What’s with the regression of Romeo Okwara, John Cominsky, Charles Harris, etc?

Erik: “In my opinion, it’s the schematic approach that is really the catalyst for the lack of production that they’re getting from the defensive line right now. Early in the season, we saw them incorporate a lot more Charles Harris, James Houston, and that introduction of lighter, quicker pass rushers was an approach to try and be more aggressive. Since then, over the last few games, we’ve seen the Lions utilizing bigger, more run-stuffers because they’ve been prioritizing stopping the run.”

“Another reason is because you’re not getting production out of those lighter guys. You’re not getting production out of Charles Harris, Julian Okwara, Romeo Okwara. If they were getting production out of those guys, you would see what you saw earlier in the season, which is a hybrid front that alters between how they utilize Aidan (Hutchinson) and switch between aggressive attacking and stuffing the run. Instead, with no one other than Aidan stepping up on those edges, we’ve seen them go to this basic approach.”

Other topics this week:

  • (2:30) What was with Dan Campbell’s weird quote about Jonah Jackson?
  • (8:20) How will the defense adjust without Alex Anzalone?
  • (35:10) Why is Tracy Walker playing deep zone at times when Kerby Joseph is better at it?
  • (40:30) What kind of impact will Bruce Irvin have?
  • (44:10) How does Hendon Hooker’s activation impact Jared Goff extension talks?

Listen to the entire show below.

You can also catch the Midweek Mailbag with bonus content on our YouTube and Twitch pages.

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