The Detroit Lions defense will need to be much more productive in 2020 under new Defensive Coordinator Cory Undlin.
The Detroit Lions defense was definitely a frustrating one to watch at times in 2019. What specifically went wrong, is still being debated. The Lions pass rush last season was not very productive, but they were able to collapse the pocket, which was most often their mission. The Lions linebackers last year didn’t really rack up high tackle numbers, but that too was not their main objective. Detroit’s linebackers are largely supposed to be block eaters, who can play at the line of scrimmage, which they were. Even the Lions safeties, led by Tracy Walker last season, while not a top unit by any stretch didn’t start to see many issues until Walker missed time due to injury. Overall, the defense last year wasn’t exactly terrible, but could have been pretty much universally better across the board. There were a couple of key issues that really stood out and which needed to be addressed this off season. With Cory Undlin taking the reins on defense, the Detroit Lions new defensive coordinator and defensive play caller has made many changes since the Lions last played a regular season game. There are many reasons to look forward to his changes.
Cornerbacks Struggled For The Detroit Lions, Bring On Jeff Okudah
The one thing the Detroit Lions lacked last year above all else, was coverage. Darius Slay struggled mightily, recording only a 56.4 grade by PFF and 56.9 coverage grade. Both of which were third among the team’s corners behind Justin Coleman and rookie standout Amani Oruwariye who played only 215 snaps.
The Detroit Lions defense relies on having one shut down corner who can take out a number one option, and everyone else being capable secondary corners who can tackle. Last year, Darius Slay was not the number one corner that the Detroit Lions needed him to be. While he continued to get pass breakups, coming fourth in the league in that category, he also gave up a number of big plays.
The corner, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, finished the season 68th in Burn Rate, 44th in yards per target, and 36th in separation allowed to receivers per player profiler. The Detroit Lions shipped him off to the Eagles in exchange for a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft, and replaced him with veteran free agent Desmond Trufant.
Trufant, who is compared by player profiler to Patriots corner and defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore, by contrast had a 0% burn rate last season, allowed the 14th lowest amount of separation per route run, and despite facing 295 routes compared to Slay’s 394, more than doubled Slay’s INT total last season 5-2. Trufant, like Slay, is coming off an injury riddled season, but he should be a more natural fit for what Matt Patricia is looking for and expecting out of his corner back one position.
Meanwhile the team added Jeff Okudah in the draft as well. The number three overall pick may have had a difficult off season due to the limited number of reps he was able to get with no preseason (thanks Covid), but should still be expected to see plenty of work the coming season. He is one of the highest touted cornerback prospects of the 2000’s, and while expectations for him may be high, he could very well start to meet some of them as early as this season. Okudah still has some growth to go before he’s at, or even near his ceiling, but he’s a talented young player with potential that is through the roof, and should provide an upgrade over Rashaan Melvin, who was the Detroit Lions second corner for most of last season.
Meanwhile the team also returns Justin Coleman as the slot cornerback. Coleman was one of the league’s best defenders at any level through the first third of the 2019 season, before he saw a substantial drop off in play following the team’s loss to Green Bay at Lambeau Field last season. If he can return to form from the first few weeks of last season, he will be a huge asset to the Detroit Lions cornerback room moving forward as well. The team also still has Amani Oruwariye who will likely be the next man up if any of the three get injured, too.
Linebacker Unit Sees Dramatic Turnover – Upgrades Defense
The Detroit Lions also put quite a bit of resources into their linebacker room this off season as well. The team went out and acquired free agents Jamie Collins and Reggie Ragland to help boost the depth of the unit and provide competition for last year’s duo of Jahlani Tavai and Jarrad Davis.
Collins is coming off an impressive year with the New England Patriots, where he was thought by some to be in consideration for defensive player of the year. Collins, however, has had some struggles at various times in his career, specifically with the Cleveland Browns, who were forced to cut him after he got beat out by Genard Avery due to what has been called terrible effort and work ethic bringing dead weight to the Cleveland Browns who would eventually finish the season 7-8-1 under coaches Hue Jackson and Gregg Williams.
Reggie Ragland is coming off a season where he won a Super Bowl ring, and like Collins, provides championship experience to a Detroit Lions locker room that previously lacked experience and was filled with young, high upside players. The team lacked veteran presence in recent years, and never really had a mentor for Jarrad Davis to learn from. Reggie Ragland should help provide some stability and mentorship to the linebacker room this coming year.
Meanwhile, the Lions return Jahlani Tavai, who showed plenty of promise as a rookie last season, and Jarrad Davis, who may be playing for a new contract after his option was not picked up this off season by Bob Quinn. Davis is still a leader on the defensive side of the ball, and Tavai started growing into play calling duties late last season, and it’s clear that the Detroit Lions believe both can play a role in the team’s playoff aspirations this coming season.
Devon Kennard Released, But Trey Flowers Returns To EDGE
The Detroit Lions EDGE position will look a little bit different next season as well, as JACK linebacker Devon Kennard has been released. The team brought in third round rookie Julian Okwara to help fill the spot created with that move. Okwara was relatively highly touted as a prospect out of Notre Dame this season, but fell to the third round due to significant concerns with his ability to defend the run, and being a pure one down pass rusher. The fact that his brother Romeo Okwara was already a Detroit Lion made the move easier, and could pay dividends with the Covid-eliminated preseason.
To help account for concerns with Julian Okwara’s game, the Lions appear to be moving Christian Jones to JACK this coming season. While Jones has struggled mightily in his first two years as a Lion, this is encouraging news, as Jones is likely to be a better fit as a run defending JACK than he was at a more traditional linebacker role on defense. Jones’s strengths are largely in the form of his size and physicality, and he can generate mild to moderate pocket push while also being a respectable edge setter. His greatest weakness shows itself when he backs into coverage and lacks the needed athleticism to play sideline to sideline. This move will put him closer to the line and in a more engaged, block eating role, rather than a pursuit role, which should serve him well moving forward.
Meanwhile, the team also returns starting defensive end Trey Flowers to play on the opposite side. Flowers had a very strong opening season with the Detroit Lions and was one of the team’s best players last season. While he will mostly be remembered for his two phantom hands to the face calls vs the Green Bay Packers last season at Lambeau Field, he learned from those calls, adjusted his hand placement and technique, and it resulted in two sacks the following game. Flowers has been a role model in his time with Detroit so far both in his standard of play as well as his standard of practice, and has thus far proven to be a strong addition to Detroit’s pocket collapsing power rushing.
Detroit Lions Interior D-Line Also Sees New Faces
The Lions defensive line last year was expected to be a huge part of the team’s defense. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way with Da’Shawn Hand and Damon Harrison both suffering through injuries, while A’Shawn Robinson saw significant regression and appears to have also been fighting through a pre-existing condition as well. Mike Daniels, a player who originally was thought to be a depth signing as defensive tackle number four in a rotational role, also did not get on the field much due to injury last season.
The Lions needed to find replacements for Daniels and Robinson, both of whom did not have their contracts renewed, while the team also cut Damon Harrison, keeping only Hand from the previous year’s primary four interior defenders. The Lions went out and added a couple of pieces at the position in Danny Shelton, a former Patriot who also found some success with the Cleveland Browns, and Nick Williams, a former Chicago Bear who Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn saw up close and personal last season.
The team still had a third defensive tackle position open after free agency, and so they went out and added rookie John Penisini (pronounced Pen-uh-See-knee) to the team’s defensive line rotation. Penisini, a day three pick out of the University of Utah is a great fit for what the Lions want to do on the defensive side of the ball. He is big, tough, physical, and will be able to provide pocket push from the inside, while also bringing a strong ability to stop the run as he showcased in his time playing in the PAC 12 in college. His games against the University of Southern California and the University of Texas, two powerhouse football programs, was particularly impressive and showcased his full potential and skill set that he could bring to the Detroit Lions in 2020 to help the defensive line. He does lack some of the necessary athleticism and explosiveness typically required out of the spot, which is why he went on day three, however his technique and strength should help him get on the field in a rotational role at some point during his rookie season with the team.
Safeties See Increased Depth After 2019 Injuries
One area that the Detroit Lions defense really needed to see improvement in this coming season is in the cohesiveness, chemistry, and teamwork among the defensive backs. The team went out and found someone who can hopefully do just that in Duron Harmon. He has already taken on a strong leadership role, quickly earning the respect of his fellow players. Harmon, a former New England Patriot, brings strong communication skills and knowledge of the Matt Patricia scheme to Detroit in an off season where both were needed to help revitalize the Lions safety room. He is an experienced safety over the top in deep coverage, and should help limit the amount of big plays the Lions allow on defense this season.
Meanwhile the team also added Jayron Kearse. While Kearse will be suspended for three games this coming season, the former Minnesota Viking who was stuck behind a pair of elite safeties in Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith could get a chance to show out in Detroit under coach Patricia. He will be competing with Will Harris for the third safety role, and could make an impact in both coverage and run defense this season for the Detroit Lions defense in need of assistance from the back end in both areas.
Of course, the Lions still have Tracy Walker. Walker, who has been one of Bob Quinn’s best draft picks during his tenure with the Detroit Lions, has shined through two seasons on defense with the team. Entering his third season, he should be entering his prime development phase with room for growth, but also providing more of what he’s already brought to the Lions secondary. Walker has been a positive asset in not just coverage, but also in run defense during his time with the team. If he can have a third great season, he will be a legitimate contender for top safety in the National Football League.
Detroit Lions Special Teams Could Be On The Rise
The Lions also made a few changes to their special teams units this off season as well. While Matt Prater remains the team’s kicker and Don Muhlbach lives on at long snapper, the team changed punters, allowing Sam Martin to leave for Denver. The team brought in Jack Fox to be the main punter on the 53 man roster following camp cuts, with Arryn Siposs, a rookie undrafted free agent as his backup on the practice squad after a tight and contested punter battle throughout training camp.
The team also changed special teams coordinators this off season. Despite finishing second in the league in special teams DVOA last season, a bright spot in last year’s injury riddled 3-12-1 season, the Lions fired John Bonamego and brought in Brayden Coombs from the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals, who were the lone team ahead of the Lions in special teams DVOA last season, elected to let his contract expire, and allowed him to take a job as the lone special teams coordinator in Detroit, rather than co special teams coach with the Bengals where he served last season. The Detroit Lions special teams unit, led by return man Jamal Agnew figure to once again be among the league’s best, and could be one of the strongest and most consistent elements the team brings to the table during the 2020 season.
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