5 reasons why the Detroit Lions are expecting big improvement on defense

Last year, the Detroit Lions had the worst defense in the league by almost every measure. They had the second-most points, fifth-most rushing yards, fourth-most total yards and third-highest passer rating — all while producing the third-fewest sacks and ninth-fewest turnovers.

But during the Lions’ preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, “Bash” caught coach Dan Campbell saying the following on his radio.

“I think we have a defense, gentlemen.”

The Lions’ first-team defense put the Steelers out three in three of four games that afternoon, but could the Lions’ defense really see such a big shift when the season started?

On Thursday, general manager Brad Holmes and assistant general manager Ray Agnew talked extensively about defense. While they didn’t set any expectations or make any specific forecasts, they also seemed fairly optimistic about the sector.

They point to the following five reasons.

Middle School has answered some questions

Holmes acknowledged that the Lions’ middle school faced its biggest problem heading into this offseason. The Lions can’t guarantee that their starters will return from 2021, when it’s safe to do so. Tracy Walker is a free agent, and the Lions don’t have any promising depth.

But the Lions were able to bring Walker back, sign Deshaun Elliott in free agency and draft a developmental option in Colby Joseph. However, Holmes pointed to the waiver declaration by JuJu Hughes in January as another big move. They did.

“To make a late statement like that in the playoffs, you have to wait, and he’s in, so I don’t think there’s a lot of noise,” Holmes said. “But this move ultimately means a lot to us.”

At cornerback, the biggest issue is the state of former third overall pick Jeff Okuda. After suffering a torn Achilles tendon in Week 1 last year, no one knows what his physical condition will be like this year. Not only did Okuda physically clean up at the start of training camp, but he improved enough in practice to earn a start.

“He was challenged and he won the challenge,” Holmes said. “We were honest with him, he didn’t hold back, he didn’t hold back or anything, he took it, he won. So, a lot of those questions were answered, thank you so much.”

Improve by rush

Of all the defensive positions, the Lions have invested the most in passing this year. They re-signed Charles Harris to a two-year deal, spent the second overall pick on Aidan Hutchinson, and traded in Josh Paschall (second round) and James Houston (sixth round) spent more picks on fringe defenders.

Agnew is excited about what Hutchinson has accomplished in training camp and is optimistic about his future.

“I can’t stop smiling. I love this kid,” Agnew said. “This kid is relentless, hard-working, and a lot better than you can imagine in the draft process. Man, all he can do is run passers in and out of the edge with both hands. As a rusher, he Very creative. I just want to say, we made the right choice.”

Holmes is more focused on Harris, who had a breakout season with 7.5 sacks. The Lions’ general manager seems to be hoping he’ll have something bigger this year.

“In the right circumstances and everything around him, Charles, he even took it a step further,” Holmes said. “You come to the grass and you look, you’re like, ‘He even looks more explosive than last year.'”

Holmes also cautioned that if the Lions can get back some injured players, it will be a competitive unit.

“You’re going to keep doing that when Josh Pascal comes back and he can provide some rush,” Holmes said. “(Romeo) Okwara, he’s going to be able to apply rush. So, our passing spree has a lot of interest.”

Linebackers step up to the challenge

Heading into the spring, the linebackers looked like the weakest team in the NFL, and certainly the weakest team. Detroit’s only notable rookies are sixth-rounder Malcolm Rodriguez and Special Teams ace Chris Bird. It looks like the starting duo will once again be Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes, two players who had the eighth-worst PFF record of all NFL linebackers last season.

But linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard assures us that tough competition will bring out the best players in the group. Fast forward to September, and here’s what we’re seeing.

“I think that group responded,” Agnew said. “I think there was a lot of competition in that group. We brought in some newcomers, and last year there were really only a few who played, brought in some newcomers and we created competition. I think the response from that group was very good.”

Of course, the linebacker’s main story is Rodriguez. The rookie linebacker popped onto the scene and went from a three-team defense to a first-team defense in just a few weeks. His ability to diagnose the game instantly has lifted expectations from a four-stage special team in the first year to someone who can immediately contribute to a defense, even as the Lions struggle to lower expectations.

“As a quarterback in high school, you know what I mean, he just got a critical diagnostic level that has been translated,” Holmes said. “But again, you just don’t know it’s coming anytime soon, but it’s coming, coming. But can’t say he’s a rookie. He hasn’t played in the NFL yet, so let’s see how it turns out.”

Rodriguez isn’t the only player in the squad to show promise, though…

Young people take the next step

Barnes is one of many young players the Lions expect to jump ship in their second year, and the team has seen that.

“There were some guys with us last year who were going to help (our defense), whether it’s a young guy like Derek Barnes that’s going to make the next move,” Holmes said. “I think it all comes together.”

And second-year defensive tackle Alim McNeill, who is Some buzz about the breakthrough candidates in 20222021 second-round picks Levi Onwuzurike and Jerry Jacobs, who appear to be recovering from injuries.

Aaron Glenn

Both Holmes and Agnew couldn’t help gushing about defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn as a reason to be optimistic about the defense this year.

“One of the things that interests me is AG,” Agnew said. “Like Brad said, he’s talented and when you have an aggressive guy and then you have very athletic guys and some violent footballers that I think he could use, he’s capable Use those tools. I think that’s going to be a recipe for success. So, I’m excited about our defense this year and how we’ve played this year.”

Holmes was particularly impressed by Glenn’s offseason tweaking his defense to match the talent of the players at his disposal.

“We were very, very lucky to have him lead our defense,” Holmes said. “So, (he) made some — not across-the-board changes — but tweaked here and there in our plan, but I like that everything about our coaching staff is done for the good of the players. So, this is Reasons for making these adjustments”

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