In typical Lions fashion, the team gave up a late lead with less than a minute to play on Sunday. In not-so-typical Lions fashion, they managed to drive down the field and win the game with a late field goal. Much like the first game of last season, the team built up a 21-3 lead in the first half, only to watch it slip away as their defense withered against Andrew Luck. If not for superb play from Matt Stafford, and a long lost running game that showed up big time, this team could very well sit at 0-1 right now.
The offense was a pleasant surprise. The line held up fairly well (against a weak Colts defense), and the Detroit backs and receivers more or less did as they pleased all day. A win is a win and in the NFL, you have to take them where you can get them. It’s encouraging that the offense seems to be picking up where it left off last season with Jim Bob Cooter calling the shots. But there might be some cause for concern on the other side of the ball. After a strong first quarter, the Detroit Lions defense regressed as the game wore on. The way things unfolded in the second half has me wondering if the Lions defense might be in trouble. Here are some of my biggest concerns at each level of the defense.
Piss poor pass rush
Early on in the game, the Colts offense looked lost and the Lions defense looked pretty tight. I was specifically impressed with the play of the defensive line, going as far as to voice my pleasure on Twitter…
This dline is beast
— Alex Jag (@TheAlexJag) September 11, 2016
As usual, I was premature in my praise. Early on, the pressure was constant and guys like Kerry Hyder Jr (one of the last players to make the 53-man roster) were making plays. The team was using stunts and disguising the rush in order to confuse the Colts offense. Andrew Luck looked uncomfortable and the pocket was collapsing with regularity, causing some difficult throwing situations for the young QB.
About midway through the second quarter that began to change. The Lions had built up a comfortable lead and then it seemed like defensive coordinator Teryl Austin took his foot off the gas. The play calling went vanilla as the Lions switched almost exclusively into a two-linebacker package, after working the 4-3 with Kyle Van Noy early on in the game. The four man rush was inept and the guys looked slow off the ball. Big boys like Haloti Ngata got pushed off the line much more often than they should have been. Devin Taylor wasn’t much of a factor either, giving a bit of legitimacy to my original concerns about him being a full time starter.
There just wasn’t much going on up front and Andrew Luck took full advantage of it. Even when there was pressure the boys couldn’t get home. Like on the Colts final drive, when Ziggy Ansah allowed Luck to narrowly escape a sack that could have been a big boost to the defense. By the end of game, hell, by mid-game, the defensive line looked worn down. This is despite a pretty constant rotation of bodies. The defensive line has got to be the heart and soul if this defense is going to thrive. If they play against top level offensive lines like they did Sunday, then there are going to be some painful moments in Detroit this season. Two sacks against that Colts is unacceptable.
Tahir Whitehead started the game pretty strong. He made some big hits and looked good in man coverage. But as the game progressed, and the team asked him to play more zone coverage, he got exposed. Teryl Austin was clearly asking him to do more than he could handle. There were some suspect coverage hand-offs in zone that left me thinking Whitehead may have been out of place or indecisive about where he needed to be. The team should let him do what he does best and let other players who thrive in more complex coverages do their thing. That’s what we have our other stud linebacker for, right?
The only problem is that he didn’t look so great either. DeAndre Levy played a total of 17 snaps in 2015, and only a handful during this year’s preseason, but was on the field for all 70 defensive snaps in week 1. By no means was he a liability (except on that shit head taunting penalty), but he didn’t live up to what we expect from him either. He was solid enough but also much slower to react than Lions fans have become accustomed to with him. It was his killer instinct and quick reflexes that helped earn him a big contract extension before last season, but this was not the same bearded beast we are all used to seeing. It was obvious that there is some rust to be knocked off with Levy, but if by some unfortunate chance his play doesn’t improve, this defense could be in trouble. They need him to be game changer not an average guy.
We all know that the Lions have at least one star in the secondary with Darius Slay. They also happen to have one above-average safety in Glover Quin, although he had a bad game against the Colts. In the NFL, that’s the foundation of a pretty good secondary. If those guys do their job and you can get just a few more players to play up to, or slightly above, their potential then you can have some real success. On Sunday that didn’t really happen.
It remains to be seen if Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush can combine to form a serviceable safety tandem, but they sure as hell aren’t going to do it if the defensive line can’t get any pressure. Slay and Quin can only do so much on their own, and without a consistent pass rush the entire unit will be a failure. Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs have shown that they can be better than adequate when given a fair shot in a defense that is functioning properly at all levels. When that was not happening on Sunday they couldn’t keep up and they shouldn’t be expected to. This secondary can thrive, but much like the defense as a whole, that is predicated on the defensive line.
With all of that in mind, we have to remember that this is only the first week of the season. Many of these issues will probably get resolved as the team plays itself into game shape and the boys knock off some of that rust. With the limited amount of full contact practices during training camp nowadays, many teams need a couple weeks to get back up to speed, and after the last two seasons it’s clear that the Lions are one of those squads. This team seems to come out of the gate in sluggish fashion every year.
We often don’t see a team’s true self until they have played a few games. I suspect that may be the case with these guys too. DeAndre Levy had played only a handful of snaps in more than a year before Sunday. Time will tell if he will ever get back to being his pre hip injury self, but I’d be willing to bet that once he gets into shape we will see a better version of him than the one we saw against the Colts. Jim Caldwell and his staff once again has failed to have his football team prepared for 60 minutes of regular season gameplay coming out of training camp.
Speaking of the staff, defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, deserves a big chunk of the blame for how the defense played Sunday. He displayed an unwillingness to play to the strengths of his players and the team suffered. By simplifying his schemes once the team had a comfortable lead, he gave Andrew Luck the window he needed to mount a comeback. It was a repeat of last season in San Diego all over again. This year, they were lucky enough to come out with a win in week 1, but they had better hope they get up to speed soon.
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