Written by: JT Bowen
After a brief intermission, we’re back with the second segment of a future-oriented series regarding the Lions. If my past five or so articles hadn’t made it clear, the Lions season is effectively over, with Thanksgiving Day’s loss to Chicago mathematically eliminating them from reaching the playoffs.
To quickly sum up the game — it was a marginally better showing than the past few weeks. Purdue product and former undrafted free agent David Blough made the start, surprisingly, after it was determined Jeff Driskel (who would later be relegated to IR) couldn’t go.
Blough, although not great, showed more competence than I expected in the game, performing with composure against a tough defense on national television in his first NFL game. He slowed down after a few great drives early on, and struggled in the second half, but displayed solid potential as a possible option at backup quarterback moving forward if the Lions choose to part ways with Jeff Driskel.
The defense, in what’s becoming a common theme, was awful, gifting Mitch Trubisky another three-touchdown performance and ultimately costing the Lions a winnable game. Detroit’s inability to pressure the quarterback would be acceptable if they could cover receivers, and their inability to guard pass catchers would be just fine if they could rush the passer. But they can’t do either, and their ineptitude from a scheming standpoint will likely persist through the season’s conclusion.
I won’t address the Redskins game too far in-depth. It was one of the most embarrassing games as a Lions fan in recent memory, and a complete disaster on all three phases. There were legitimately zero positives to take away save perhaps Amani Oruwariye’s solid game, and it perfectly encapsulated the hilarity of the 2019 Detroit Lions.
But that’s enough about the now. Let’s start moving forward.
The first part of this series was focused mainly on the offensive side of the ball (and it’s woes). So, as you could probably guess, this part will be about the defense, a much worse component of the team.
The glaring issues stem from a scheming and coaching level. Since the Lions are notoriously tight-lipped and probably dishonest in media sessions, I’m going to just attribute the blame for the defensive inadequacy 50-50 between Paul Pasqualoni and Matt Patricia. It’s still confusing to me what different duties each of the two have, so pinning equal guilt on each seems as fair as it can quantitatively be.
But, yeah, the defense is downright horrible. It’s an interesting development too, given Patricia’s calling card as a defensive guru, and the massive amounts of money thrown at big-name free agents to boost the defense. Unlike last season, where even though the year was basically over early on, the defense showed vast improvement in the latter half of the campaign, this year’s defense has been consistently bad throughout.
It is, though, highly inconsistent in how they manage to be bad. Each week it seems like a different personnel group or scheming issue comes to the forefront as the reason the defense sucks. And that group, they’ll typically play better for a few weeks, then seem to become problematic again. It’s an insanely maddening pattern that has the Lions defense seemingly going around in circles.
Patricia/Pasqualoni’s duo of scheming and coaching, as previously mentioned, is not working. Detroit repeatedly shows an incapability to adjust to new systems, to gameplan for big-time players, to stagnate an opposing offense. Though it’s not entirely their fault, the fact of the matter is that the defense constantly looks overmatched, confused, and unprepared.
Turning to personnel, it, similar to the offense, is a bit of hodge-podge. A few players stand out regularly, playing at a high level — Trey Flowers, Darius Slay, and Justin Coleman for the most part. Additionally, young players like Tracy Walker, Jahlani Tavai, and even Amani Oruwariye flash potential and often play better than expected among occasional lapses as they learn, which are completely acceptable.
By and large, though, most players, whether starters or reserves have disappointed. Damon Harrison hasn’t been the same player the dominant run-stuffer the Lions acquired midway through last year. Romeo Okwara, isn’t the solid rotational pass rusher Detroit snatched off waivers last season. Devon Kennard is too inconsistent, Jarrad Davis will seemingly never turn the corner and is starting to be used mainly as a pass rusher, Mike Daniels can’t return to his Pro Bowl form, and the list just goes on.
Yes, some of it can be heavily cast upon the injury bug, which decimated the roster over the course of the year, particularly on the defensive side. I legitimately think every starter save maybe Tavon Wilson, Justin Coleman, and Jahlani Tavai have missed multiple games due to varying injuries.
But good teams with good coaches are able to adjust and adapt to injuries. Matt Patricia always refers to the ‘next man up’ mentality, where backups are supposed to step into starting roles and fill holes where needed. Yet that hasn’t happened in any capacity — reserves play just as averagely as those that they’re replacing, leading to porous defensive performances on a weekly basis no matter how strong the opposing offense is.
It really seems the Lions’ defense is stuck in some unbreakable cycle of mediocrity, which give rise to existential questions regarding the team’s direction. The defense is really atrocious across the board in all facets. They don’t excel or even perform well in any areas on a consistent basis, appear unready for opponents in spite of the identity they’ve constructed as a game-planning team, and have come immeasurably short of the reasonable expectations set out before the season’s start.
Similar to the last article, I’m going to list a few ideas that obviously won’t fix the defense, but steer the Lions in the right direction towards the season’s conclusion.
Let young players play: Same thing as the offense. This one’s pretty self-explanatory: The Lions have no reason to play their starters all game and risk more meaningless injury with no incentive to reach the postseason. And even if it’s in limited minutes, allow rookies and younger guys to play more. Partially due to injury, the Lions have started this with rookie Amani Oruwariye, who has performed fairly well and shows promise. This needs to happen across the board, on a much bigger scale. Give CJ Moore some of Tavon Wilson’s minutes, and Mike Jackson some of Rashaan Melvin’s. Let Austin Bryant, once fully recovered, get a dozen snaps to display his pass-rushing ability. Even John Atkins and Miles Killebrew deserve playing time to evaluate their respective futures with the organization. The Lions have a really good opportunity to look at their roster front-to-back in these last few weeks, and potentially discover a diamond in the rough. Let ‘em play, Matt.
Play Darius Slay… a lot: This heavily contradicts my last point. Why would Detroit risk the health of arguably their top defensive player for a few trivial games and take valuable minutes away from younger players. Because they need to fully display his talent. Though the trade deadline didn’t end with Detroit making any big moves, the main storyline was the seemingly near-trade of Darius Slay. Clearly, the Lions were reluctant to jump at any insufficient offers, knowing Slay’s worth as a lockdown corner, but there were points nearing the deadline where it seemed Slay might be headed out of Detroit. Even without a trade actually coming to fruition, it was made exceedingly clear that Slay’s future in Motown is coming to an end. So, letting him log lots of time now to further bolster his profile and increase his trade value is a good idea. Perhaps I’m going at it from the wrong angle since there is always the chance of an injury, but it just makes sense to let Slay ball out and up his value should a team come calling for an offseason trade.
Add pass rushing in the first round: Yes, there are numbering glaring holes across Detroit’s roster. And yes, the defensive line might seem like the most highly-priced and painstakingly-constructed aspect of the defense. But every week, the Lions’ blatant incapability to pressure quarterbacks becomes more evident.
Obviously, the dream selection is Chase Young. He’s the best player in the country, one of the best edge prospects to come out in a long time, and will have a Nick Bosa-like immediate impact in the NFL. But, whether you like it or not, he probably won’t be a Lion. Detroit is currently slated to pick sixth, and I doubt they move too much from there, maybe a spot up or down. New York is probably very happy selecting second knowing Chase Young is likely theirs for the picking, and might not put forth huge effort in these last few games. Detroit would additionally have to surpass Washington, Atlanta, and Miami in four games to get there, and those teams will likely lose out too. Chase Young, in all likelihood, will not be a Lion, as painful as it is to say.
However, the defensive line class is still very much talented, with a good amount at the top. The two most realistic candidates after Young for Detroit at #6 are Iowa’s AJ Epenesa and Auburn’s Derrick Brown, both of whom I’ve previously discussed. Epenesa is a powerful, big edge rusher who has turned his season around of late, racking up six sacks in the last month. He would form a menacing duo with Trey Flowers for opposing tackles to deal with, and is a perfect scheme fit for Detroit as it stands. As for Brown, he’s an incredibly athletic, upside-laden defensive tackle on the nation’s best defensive line. He adds versatility and would be an anchor on the line with Da’Shawn Hand.
I would be ecstatic with either of these selections at 6. Epenesa is maybe marginally better in my mind given the Lions’ lack of an edge rusher opposite Flowers, but both are perfect and would tremendously benefit the defense.
Resign Rashaan Melvin, and target a linebacker in free agency: Quick and easy here. Melvin, though he’s dealt with injuries has played well overall as the Lions #2 corner. With Darius Slay’s future hazy, Melvin returns a solid playmaker in a secondary with many questions going forward. Ideally he wouldn’t be the Lions’ #1 going into next year, but he’s played well enough to deserve another contract and playing time. As for linebacker, it’s also pretty simple. The Lions handed Christian Jones a baffling extension earlier this year, and he continues to play poorly. Jarrad Davis just isn’t the answer at middle linebacker, either. Jahlani Tavai is young, and needs time to grow in the league, but has a bright future. Overall, the linebacking corps desperately needs improvement, but this year’s draft class is admittedly weak in that regard. Targeting a young linebacker to boost the area would help massively, and with the backloaded contracts on the roster, the Lions have a decent amount of money to throw at an interior linebacker. It’s unclear what players of these will be extended or not this early, but Patrick Onwuasor, Blake Martinez, Joe Schobert, Reggie Ragland, and Darron Lee are 2020 free agents that might intrigue Detroit at varying price points.
Thanks for reading this portion of my franchise outlook. The next and final component will address big-picture questions surrounding the Lions, so stay tuned.