Going undefeated in the NFL is nearly impossible, and it’s why only one team has been able to do it as long as the league has been around. Nobody predicted the Detroit Lions to go undefeated in 2023, but fans are sure acting like they were going to after the 37-31 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. To be fair, some of the hysteria was more than losing the game to the Seahawks; it was also that multiple players went down with injuries, and coaches made questionable decisions.
People started questioning whether they should have bought into the team this season or if it was just another apparition that again tricked them. I’m here to tell you to breathe, calm down, and look around at what is going on around the NFL and the Lions. Let’s start with negatives first and get those out of the way.
Injuries piling up
The biggest reason why some people are questioning whether they should still believe is the number of injuries that have just appeared in the past two weeks. While Week 1 only saw left tackle Taylor Decker get an injury, Week 2 is when players started dropping like flies, even before the game began. Here are a list of players that got injured after Week 1 and 2:
- DL: Josh Paschal - IR
- CB: Khalil Dorsey - IR
- EDGE: James Houston IV - IR
- S: C.J. Gardner-Johnson - IR
- RB: David Montgomery
- OG: Halapoulivaati Vaitai
- WR: Amon-Ra St. Brown
- S: Kerby Joseph
- OT: Taylor Decker
Out of all of these players, St. Brown and Joseph both left the Seattle game briefly and returned. It’s certainly possible they don’t miss any time. Still, the team caught the injury bug early this season and is facing a short week here soon, as after Week 3 on Sunday, they play the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night for Week 4. There is never a good time for injuries in the NFL, but it couldn’t be worse timing for Detroit.
Defensive line struggles
No group in Detroit has as much depth as the defensive line, specifically the edge rushers. The Lions started the season with seven on their roster, and now three are on IR. It’s not just the injuries at the position that hurt the team, but the lack of execution and low success rate this team has at getting to the quarterback.
Despite being eighth in the NFL in quarterback pressure rate at 38.9 percent, according to TruMedia, the Lions defensive line has yet to record a sack. The only sack the team has gotten this year was from linebacker Alex Anzalone, and it took 13 seconds for it to happen. The defensive line needs to be able to finish the pressures it creates and take down the quarterback.
The lack of sacks is due to guys getting double-teamed, the individuals going one-on-one failing to win their battles, and the edge rushers going too high in the pocket, giving the quarterback an escape route from the pressure applied.
I will start with the apparent one: defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who hasn’t had a successful start to the season. His unit is ranked 28th in points allowed this season (28.5 per game), and to be fair, the offenses he has gone up against haven’t been the easiest to slow down. A big help for him was not worrying about Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in Week 1, as we saw tight ends dismantle his defense in Week 2.
The Seahawks’ tight ends had nine catches for 132 yards on 10 targets. They were getting open quickly as Seattle consistently ran a bootleg pass play where the tight end would be available in the flats almost every time. The few times the Lions were able to eliminate that threat, Seattle quarterback Geno Smith found another receiver open. The defense needs to make some adjustments soon, or else things only go down from here for Glenn.
Despite being labeled as the best regarding these decisions, the other coaching mistake is with coach Dan Campbell. While I love his aggressiveness on fourth down and the data says he has been making the right decisions, he made the wrong one early on in the game against Seattle.
Tied 7-7 in the middle of the second quarter, Campbell went for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal to take the lead. The same data that says he made the right decisions later in the game shows he made the wrong decision earlier. If Campbell kicks the field goal there and the Lions go up 10-7, that kick to force overtime turns into a game-winning kick. Campbell needs to take the points when they are right in front of him, not overthink them, and look at the bigger picture, something he can easily do.
I just told you to relax, but I gave you many reasons to get upset, nervous, and fearful about what happened to the Lions. Let me remind you that it is only Week 3; the season is still very early, and as it always is, it’s unpredictable as to what would have already happened this season around the league. If I were to tell you that the Lions would be 1-1 in their first two games, many would expect that, but a loss to the Chiefs and a win over the Seahawks? So does it matter how the team got here if the results are the same? Let’s get you calmed down, relaxed, and ready for the rest of the season with the positives we have to look forward to.
Help is on the way
The running back room will get some help from their practice squad as the Lions called up Zonovan Knight, who last played for the New York Jets in 2022. In his very first NFL appearance, Knight set a Jets record for 103 yards from scrimmage for a player’s debut. He will help the rookie Jahmyr Gibbs and Craig Reynolds on the ground. While Knight isn’t Montgomery, he can still make players miss their tackles, as he was second in the NFL in missed tackles from Week 12 to Week 18 last season, making 29 people miss him.
There is depth at the defensive line, and while Houston could be out 6-8 weeks, Julian Okwara can return to the team in Week 5. Sure, he doesn’t provide the same pass rushing threat as Houston, but he plays a similar role and has certainly flashed the ability to get the quarterback.
If Vaitai misses time with his injury, Detroit has guard Graham Glasgow to fill in. Glasgow is a more-than-capable backup, as he was neck-and-neck for the starting job in training camp. Detroit also brought back offensive tackle Dan Skipper to the practice squad, who can be another depth piece at every position on the offensive line. Someone they brought up from the practice squad to the active roster is guard Kayode Awosika, who can fill in a pinch if Glasgow or Jackson go down.
Finally, former starter at safety Tracy Walker can fill in Gardner-Johnson’s role. While he’s returning from a torn Achilles himself, he can still be a great leader in the secondary and defense overall. This team has depth at where these significant injuries are happening, and without it, it would be harder to be more optimistic about the future.
Schedule is favorable
Looking at the future of the schedule, Detroit suffering injuries now is better than having them later in the season when the team tries to make a playoff push. Let’s focus on the next four games, because looking at November and beyond is foolish right now. This week, Detroit takes on the undefeated Atlanta Falcons, and despite their record, they are a very beatable team that relies on the run for offense—something Detroit has been able to slow down. Through two weeks, Detroit is ninth-best in rushing yards allowed.
In a short week after that, they take on the Packers, who are also dealing with some injury woes on offense. The Packers can be defeated, and getting the road game in Lambeau Field done in late September is better than late December. After the Packers, the Lions return home to take on the Carolina Panthers, who have yet to win a game and have struggled to put up points on offense this season, something the defense can use as a confidence booster.
Finally, they travel down to Florida to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have just beat up the weak teams of the NFC North: the Minnesota Vikings, and the Chicago Bears. They have to take on the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints in the next two weeks, so we should have a better grasp if their 2-0 start is for real. If Detroit can come out of the following four games with a 3-1 record, a 4-2 record six games in is excellent, and just in time to get wide receiver Jameson Williams back on offense and possibly others from injury. That would put the team in a great position to make a playoff run.
The offense is hitting its stride
While the defense has been lackluster, the offense has been doing well. While it isn’t a top-five unit, the offense is ranked 10th in the NFL in points per game. A big reason for that is the play of quarterback Jared Goff, who has had a solid start to the season. He’s currently fifth in the NFL in passing yards (576), second in yards per pass attempt (8.2), and third in passer rating (109.0). With a 71.4% completion percentage (sixth), he is making adequate and accurate decisions, all while limiting his mistakes, as the sole interception he has was his first in 383 attempts.
The offensive line has also been a big help in Goff’s success. While he only had one game with all starting five offensive linemen so far, backup tackle Matt Nelson filled in nicely for the line against the Seahawks. With a strong line, it also gives you success on the ground. While Detroit is only averaging 3.61 yards per carry this season, they rank 14th in rush DVOA—a more specific measure of their efficiency, and the team ranks third in PFF’s run blocking grade.
The offense is generally doing what they did last season, but they’re hitting their stride way earlier. Goff is making better throws, having more time to make them, and limiting turnovers. Receivers getting open and making tough catches, while the running backs hit their holes and either plow through defenders or zoom by them with speed. The offense will only get better as the season goes on. Once Decker, Vaitai, and Montgomery return from their injuries and Williams returns from his suspension, the offense could elevate into the top-five unit they were supposed to be.
Rookies are showing up
In what people deemed a questionable first round for general manager Brad Holmes, taking Gibbs and linebacker Jack Campbell, the rookie class has been doing well in the regular season. Gibbs has been limited in the offense so far this year but will see his role increase as the season progresses, possibly making his first start against the Falcons this week. He has yet to score, but his few plays with the ball showcase what he can do with it.
Campbell has had a little play time, getting 48 defensive snaps so far this season and 28 special teams snaps as the linebacker room has a lot of talent, but he’s already made a big play in a pass deflection against the Chiefs. His counterpart at Iowa, tight end Sam LaPorta, has been impressing the fans and coaches, as he has 10 catches for 102 yards. A lot of those catches haven’t been easy, but he’s made them, gained yards after the catch, and broken tackles. He is becoming one of Goff’s favorite weapons, tied for third in team targets this year.
Clutch catch by Sam LaPorta pic.twitter.com/1w6Q0QfBA7— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 18, 2023
Defensive back Brian Branch has been the best rookie so far, as he had a pick-six in the first game of the season and has made some solid tackles on defense and pressure on the quarterback in some cases. He can certainly be a player the defense relies on for big plays with Gardner-Johnson out.
While the contributions of the rest of the class have been minimal at this point, getting significant impact from your top four picks immediately is extremely promising. And those players are likely to get better and more impactful as the season goes on.
With rookies improving, the schedule getting more manageable, the offense clicking, and players returning from injury (hopefully) soon, this team still has a lot going for them. Plus, being in the same division as the Vikings and Bears—who look like they may already have to rebuild—helps a ton. So one loss doesn’t mean the season is over for the Detroit Lions; it’s a chance to learn and get better. And as Campbell said, it gives everyone a piece of humble pie.