After two painful seasons of attempting to mold their defensive personnel to fit their vision with lousy results, the Lions enter 2020 under significant pressure. Excuses will not cut it this year, but the elements for an improved unit may be taking shape under head coach Matt Patricia and new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin.
No team surrendered more passing yards than Detroit last year, a metric that will clearly need to improve drastically for the Lions to be competitive this season. Much of the blame falls on a defensive line that fell apart and underachieved, and the group that takes the field this season will hardly resemble last year’s.
Gone are veterans Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, and Mike Daniels, but in their place are a handful of players that could struggle to lift the unit out of the mud. Hulking Danny Shelton will step into Harrison’s spot, and he should have an easy adjustment period after spending two seasons in the same scheme with the New England Patriots. He’s never really lived up to his first-round draft status, but he’s a reliable run-stuffer and is coming off of a career year.
Next to him, it becomes more uncertain. Nick Williams was brought in as a 3-technique after a breakout season at age 29 with the Chicago Bears. Was last year an outlier, or is he capable of similar production? Additionally, third-year man Da’Shawn Hand has shown flashes of excellence in two injury-plagued seasons. He is a perfect fit for this defense and could be a difference-maker, but he needs to stay on the field.
Kevin Strong, John Atkins, and rookies John Penisini and Jashon Cornell could be competing for one or two spots. The Lions could also bring in a veteran defensive tackle.
The Lions’ defense just doesn’t put a big emphasis on flame-throwing, sack-masters bursting off the edge, and under this staff, it has left them as one of the worst teams in terms of pressuring the quarterback. Could that change this year?
Trey Flowers overcame a slow start to 2019 and eventually looked like his old self as the year wore on. In terms of consistently leading a pass-rushing attack though, he can’t do it alone. After a negligible 2019, Romeo Okwara may have to fend off his brother, rookie Julian Okwara, as well Austin Bryant for snaps on the edge. The latter two are also capable of playing as stand up linebackers, but they both battled through injuries last year. The Lions will need consistent production from at least one of them.
Former Patriot Jamie Collins gives the Lions the kind of versatility and athleticism that has been missing in their linebackers for years. Look for him to line up all over the field and provide pass coverage skills that have been recently absent at the second level.
The Lions also need progress from Jahlani Tavai in year two. How the Lions deploy him, Christian Jones and Jarrad Davis – who needs to impress in camp to avoid being a lost cause – will be an important story to watch. This becomes all the more important in nickel packages when the Lions remove a linebacker.
Simply put, the Lions’ retooled cornerback unit must perform significantly better this year for the Lions to have any chance of competing. How veterans Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman along with rookie Jeff Okudah and second-year player Amani Oruwariye operate is the biggest key for the Lions’ defense. Veterans Darryl Roberts and Tony McRae could have an advantage for depth spots over younger options due to their ties to members of the Lions’ coaching staff and their special teams abilities.
At safety, the Lions have a nice mix of youth and experience. Tracy Walker played nearly three-quarters of the Lions’ defensive snaps in 2019 and his versatility could make that number rise in 2020. Will Harris will also figure more into the gameplan in year two.
Both of them will have a chance to learn from savvy ballhawk and former Patriot Duron Harmon, whose transition to the Lions should be smooth. Ex-Minnesota Viking Jayron Kearse’s versatility and intel on his former team will give him more value over the other young safeties on the roster. Look for at least five safeties to make the final cuts.