Detroit Lions: An Evaluation of the Starting 11 on Defense

As was the story of the Detroit Lions offense, the 2021 Lions defense underperformed across the board. The defense simply couldn’t stop the run or the pass, finishing 28 and 24 respectively. The defense also gave up 27.4 points per game, the 29 worst rank in the league. Injuries were to blame, as defensive back Jeff Okudah missed virtually the entire season with a torn achilles and pass rusher Romeo Okwara only played in four.

Along with the offense, Dan Campbell who is entering his sophomore season with the Lions, will look to get this unit headed in the right direction. When Campbell came over from New Orleans, he brought over with him Aaron Glenn to be the teams defensive coordinator. Glenn had previously been the defensive backs coach for the Saints for five seasons. Glenn must show he can get this unit going in the right direction, or his time as coordinator may be short-lived. As camp starts, we will take a look at each position on the defensive side of the ball and what to expect.

Defensive Ends:

The Lions simply need to generate more pressure on the opposing QB. They finished the 2021 season with only 30 sacks, which ranked 30 in the league. Enter Aidan Hutchinson, the second overall pick from this year’s draft out of Michigan. Many believed the Jaguars would select Hutchinson with the first overall pick, however they selected Travon Walker. Hutchinson had an incredible 2021 campaign for the Wolverines. He finished with 14 sacks, was named the defensive player of the year, named an unanimous All-American, and finished as the Heisman Runner-Up to Bryce Young. The Lions are expecting big things out of Hutchinson.

On the other side is Romeo Okwara. As mentioned, Okwara struggled with injury during the 2021 season and only played in four games. Okwara signed a 3yr/$37mill contract after his breakout season in 2020 where he recorded 10 sacks. The Lions are hoping Okwara can stay healthy and live up to his contract. He is currently starting camp on the PUP list, but is expected to play this upcoming season. In the absence of Okwara last season, Charles Harris stepped up and filled the pass rusher role, totaling 7.5 sacks. Harris signed a 2yr/$13mill contract this off-season, so he too will be expected to generate consistent QB pressure.

Defensive Tackles:
Stopping the run in the NFL starts up front with the interior defensive tackles. And the Lions desperately need stop ball carriers running for 135yds/game from last year if they want to become a better unit. There are no jump off the page names along the interior of the line, but there is some promise. Alim McNeill will anchor one of the spots for the Lions interior. McNeill, a third-round pick from the 2021 NFL Draft, finished his rookie season with two sacks and 39 combined tackles while scoring an overall grade of 60 according to PFF. The best part of McNeill is that he appeared in all 17 games for the Lions, and will look to be a key cog upfront.

Along with McNeill upfront will be 11 year pro Michael Brockers. Brockers came over from the Rams via trade at the start of last season and played in 16 games for the Lions, recording 52 total tackles and two sacks. PFF gave him a poor grade of 40. Brockers and McNeill will be tasked with being the first line of defense against run defenses and generate interior push. For depth, look for fellow 2021 Draft member Levi Onwuzurike to fill in where needed. He finished last year with 34 tackles and one sack.

The Linebacking Corp for the Detroit Lions is a little unproven. Entering training camp, the two names at the top of the depth chart are Alex Anzalone and Chris Board. Anzalone, a captain from last year, will be the leader for the linebacker room as he enters his second season with the Lions. Anzalone finished last season with 78 total tackles, one sack, and one interception. Last season, the Lions struggled with tackling. This was evident in their horrid run defense. Anzalone missed 21 tackles last year, but he believes a more downhill approach to the defense this year will help shore up some of the tackling issues.

Board on the other hand, played sparingly for the Ravens from 2018-2021. He comes in as the starter for the other linebacker position, but will have to prove his worth during camp. In terms of depth, Jarrad Davis is interesting. He was a Lions first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and looked to be the linebacker of the future for the Lions after his impressive 2018 campaign. However, the new Campbell regime entered and they preferred their own style of play at linebacker. Because of this, Davis signed a one year deal with the Jets for the 2021 season and barely saw any playing time due to injury. But, Davis is back for the Lions this year, and he will hope to impress the new regime and look to be solid depth or possibly compete for the other spot alongside Anzalone.

Defensive Backs:

Jeff Okudah will be the biggest storyline for the Lions secondary this year. He simply needs to stay healthy. In two seasons with the Lions, Okudah has only appeared in 10 games. The Lions will need Okudah’s health and services as the Lions struggles to take the ball away last year, finishing with only 11 interceptions last season. One bright spot for the Lions due to Okudah’s injury was defensive back Amani Oruwariye. Oruwariye finished last year with six interceptions, which was 3 in the league. He will look to build off a strong season last year and form a formidable duo with Okudah.

At nickel back, a position that is becoming extremely important in today’s pass-happy NFL, look for AJ Parker to get the first nod at the start of camp. Parker, an undrafted free agent from Kansas State a year ago, made the Lions 53 man roster and appeared in 13 games. He recorded 53 tacklers and picked off a pass. Being undrafted, Parker will look to keep building his confidence from his rookie year and have an impact season in the slot.

The two starting safeties tabbed at the beginning of camp will be Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliot. Walker is the more proven of the two, having already played in 59 games for the Lions since being drafted by them in 2018. Walker is a solid safety, who has a knack for tackling as he recorded a career high 108 total tackles last season for the Lions. Elliot is coming over from the Ravens on a “bargain deal” for the Lions who signed him to a one year deal worth around four million.

Elliot had his best year in the league during the 2020 season with the Ravens. That season Elliot started all 16 games and recorded 80 total tackles with three sacks. Injuries riddled his 2021 season as he only played in six games. The Ravens were hesitant to bring him back, and instead opted to draft safety Kyle Hamilton from Notre Dame. Elliot still has a lot to prove, and it looks like he will get his chance with the Lions. At depth, Kerby Joseph is an interesting prospect. A day two pick from the 2022 NFL draft out of Illinois, Joseph has good coverage skills. He recorded 5 interceptions during the 2021 season for the Fighting Illini. Look for Joseph to challenge Elliot for the other safety spot alongside Walker during camp.

This defense has a lot to prove for the upcoming season. The most watched player will obviously be Hutchinson, as many will want him to be a cornerstone for this franchise for years to come. From a high-level view, the most interesting positions heading into camp will be linebacker and interior defensive line. Those two positions will be critical in helping a run defense that was exposed too often last season. Check out last weeks article on the Lions offense heading into camp here, as this wraps up the Detroit Lions roster heading into training camp for the 2022 NFL season.

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