You can obsess about the quarterback, tout the offensive line, be intrigued by the running backs, lament the thin receiving corps. There’s plenty to debate about the Lions’ offense, and you can bet we’ll be counting Jared Goff’s completions, incompletions, interceptions, smiles, grimaces and backslaps.
The new regime starts sorting it out this week during voluntary organized team activities, the first real chance for Dan “Not Matt” Campbell and his staff to evaluate the players they inherited. And while the offense will grab attention, a huge chunk of the focus will be on a defense that has no discernible shape or strength or stars, in an evolving scheme.
Obviously, Campbell has a big task as a first-time head coach. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, a former head coach with lots of experience, has some talent on that side of the ball. The toughest task of all will fall on Aaron Glenn, a first-time defensive coordinator, and his staff. They have to figure out how many pieces are salvageable from one of the NFL’s worst defenses, and where to put them.
How do you fix the unfixable? How do you upgrade a defense that ranked 30th or lower in most key categories, without a massive infusion of talent? You start by figuring out if it was irreparably broken, or partly damaged by misuse.
You can’t toss everybody aside. You also can’t assume the previous regime knew how to use the players. If we acknowledge Matt Patricia did a horrible job fitting players into his beloved system, there’s a chance they can be “coached up” and “schemed up,” right? That’s the hope, and to hear the defensive assistants talk, it’s a challenge, but not an impossible one.
“I’m not afraid of a challenge,” defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant said. “When I took a look at the roster, I didn’t pay attention to stats or wins or losses. I saw a group of very young talented players that had a high ceiling and are ready to improve. You have to enhance what they do well.”
All about scheme
That’s pretty much what you’d expect a new coaching staff to say, and we’ll have to see it. The Lions do have 2020’s No. 3 overall pick in cornerback Jeff Okudah, who had a horrible rookie season before being sidelined with a groin injury. They have another promising young corner in Amani Oruwariye. After his initial interactions with the new staff, Okudah sounds like a guy eager to start over under Glenn, who coached a talented secondary in New Orleans, and Pleasant, who coached a talented secondary with the Rams.
“Within the first couple of meetings, I was just picking up so many things that I thought to myself, ‘It just would have been nice to have these tools in my toolbox in my rookie year,’” Okudah said recently. “Just having the tools that (Pleasant) put in my toolbox, it’s like I’m seeing film from a whole new perspective. I’m seeing the game completely different.”
From my untrained view, this is how I see it. You can upgrade a defense any of three ways: By adding talent, by installing a more suitable scheme, or by extracting maximum effort from players a higher percentage of the time.
Based on the relentless energy and upbeat tone set by Campbell, and the few-jobs-guaranteed competitive nature of the roster, I suspect effort won’t be the issue. With a base 3-4 scheme, the Lions should be better equipped to use Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara, their only credible pass-rushers, at end or outside linebacker.
By drafting defensive linemen — tackles Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill — in the second and third rounds, they added some talent. No huge splashes in free agency but they also took cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu in the third round and linebacker Derrick Barnes in the fourth.
In a rebuild, you don’t get to bring in a bunch of pricey free agents, so making the scheme work is paramount, the only option at the moment. The Lions have cleaned the slate and are seeking roles for previous high drafts picks such as Jahlani Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Da’Shawn Hand, Will Harris and Tracy Walker.
“The bottom line is, we have to be able to affect the quarterback, and I think (Glenn’s) scheme allows them to do that,” defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “We need to be disruptive one way or another, whether with four, five, six guys rushing. The only thing I’m looking at right now is their skill set. I really don’t care what has happened in the past. What they do well, we’re gonna ask them to do it.”
A fresh start
It appears the new staff is intent on bringing back staples commonly used around the league. They’re called “sacks,” “interceptions” and “blitzes.” Remember those relics?
In Patricia’s system, defenders were asked to keep everything in front; blitzing was treated like cheating, an unnecessary tool if the defense was properly executed. Of course it never was and the Lions almost never blitzed and almost never made the opposing quarterback nervous.
They were last in the league in yards allowed last season, 25th in sacks and 31st in interceptions with seven. They were awful, and somehow it was an improvement. In 2019, they were 31st in yards allowed, 30th in sacks and tied for last in interceptions, also with seven.
The new assistant coaches preface everything by saying they’re just getting to know the players. The encouraging aspect is they don’t act like they know everything, as the previous regime did. Some of the assistants are in their positions for the first time. They don’t have preconceived notions of the players, or even of their own coaching strengths.
Once you establish a program, you can draft to fit your scheme. Until you’ve shaped the roster to your liking, you’re advised to fit the scheme to your players. Weird concept, huh?
Lions senior defensive assistant Dom Capers has directed exceptional units in Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville during his 35 years in the NFL. He certainly knows some elemental truths.
“I’ve always believed the players are the most important thing,” Capers said. “We all know what we like to do scheme-wise, but I think you make a big mistake if you try to plug a square peg into a round hole. As we become more familiar with players here and we adapt the scheme to them, then we’ll try to feature them within the defense.”
The Lions’ defense hasn’t had much to feature for a while. With a new staff, a fresh start and a deeper look, maybe they’ll finally dig something up.
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