Reviewing the Lions: Back down to earth
Welcome to Reviewing the Lions- an ongoing series where I will periodically review how the Lions' season is progressing and what we're learning about the team. We're not going to be doing in-depth analysis- this is bigger-picture stuff. How are key players performing? Have any glaring issues appeared? How does this affect our outlook in 2023? How does this change our off-season plans?
The Lions' off-season was full of hope. Shiny, optimistic, beautiful hope. The hope that we might have an actual pass rush with Aidan Hutchinson. The hope that we might have a top-quality offense with the new weapons added to Goff's arsenal. The hope that the defense would take a step forward. The hope that we would drag teams out into the murky depths of the sea and subdue them beneath the waves with our endurance and refusal to surrender.
Instead, we've had sprint races in the shallows. After a series of photo finishes and a good win, the New England Patriots left us sprawled in the sand with a lot of questions heading into the bye week.
However, for me there are no question marks hanging over Head Coach Dan Campbell, Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn, or General Manager Brad Holmes. And nor should there be. This is a long rebuild. The cupboard was nigh bare when these guys rode into town and there's not been cap space available to make splash signings in free agency. This rebuild should and will be done through the draft. That takes time and we need to give them that time. If things are still like this in a year then serious questions will, rightly, begin to be asked. Until then, criticise away but this is not the time to be calling for firings.
I made some predictions in my last article about Quarterback Jard Goff, Cornerback Jeff Okudah, and the coaching staff's late-game decision-making. So, how'd I get on?
Prediction 1: Goff's mediocrity helps focus the need to move on next season.
Goff's play has so far exceeded my prediction, but the shut-out to the Patriots raised a lot of doubts that he was close to putting to bed. The jury is still out on if Goff is the franchise QB moving forwards, and he's got some work to do to seize the mantle for 2023 and beyond. Overall, I'm taking the win there.
Prediction 2: They move Okudah to Safety after the bye and put Ifeatu Melifonwu back at corner.
I was completely wrong about Okudah, he's been our best cornerback this season (though that isn't saying much!) and certainly won't be moving to safety anytime soon. Big L on this one! I still think Melifonwu could be moved back to corner; though I'm probably putting too much stock in his great performance covering Devante Adams last year. One good game does not a cornerback make.
Prediction 3: No late-game coaching errors will be as bad as the Thanksgiving loss vs the Bears last year.
The decision to kick a field goal late against the Minnesota Vikings was poor from Dan Campbell but he immediately fronted up, owned the mistake, and I don't think he'll make it again. Having said all that, I think it was as bad as the mess vs the Bears last year. Another L, but hopefully Campbell will improve moving forwards. The overall lack of talent doesn't make his job easy.
So, what are the big questions facing the Lions now?
Can this defense bounce back this year?
You don't need me to tell you that this defense has been bad. Currently ranked dead last in defensive DVOA, it's been even worse than we thought. The zero blitz call on 3rd & 16 that allowed a 33-yard TD run was particularly galling, as was watching Geno Smith do whatever he wanted all game. The coaching has been questionable, but talent is the biggest reason behind these struggles.
Imagine a world where the Lions are contending for the NFC North. How many of our current players make it into a starting XI on defense? Not many. Romeo Okwara (when fit), Hutchinson, Okudah, and Walker are the only locks for me. DT Alim McNeill and LB Malcolm Rodriquez could also make it but probably only on early downs. And, that's it. There are plenty of depth pieces that could evolve into good rotational pieces (DeShon Elliott, Kirby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu) but it'll take a big leap for them to be starters on a quality team. We might get some injured players back, but they'll mainly impact 2023: FS Tracy Walker and DT Levi Onwuzurike won't see the field again this season; EDGE Josh Pascal is a rookie; and DE Romeo Okwara won't have played football in over a year.
All this means that starters need to be added at every level of the defense for it to be merely average. If the Lions' defense was a car it would be written off for being too costly to repair. You can't expect DC Aaron Glenn to achieve much with what he has to work with. I believe that coaching will improve and become smarter in-game, but not enough to make this an average unit. The boat anchor that is poor defensive talent will sink those hopes.
The only good news is that we are not committed to many players beyond this year. This is especially true at Linebacker, our position of greatest weakness. Rodriquez, Derrick Barnes, and Julian Okwara are the only LBs under contract next year. However, a lot of big players have contracts expiring after 2023. This includes starters RB DeAndre Swift, TE TJ Hockenson, WR Josh Reynolds, G Jonah Jackson, EDGE Charles Harris, and DB Jeff Okudah. You can't make a huge splash in Free Agency and re-sign all those players. So don't expect cannonballs into the FA pool and prepare to make do with an elegant dive into the deep end for a peal or two.
My prediction: The defense improves, but will remain in the bottom 10 (per DVOA) after Thanksgiving.
A kicker! A kicker! My kingdom for a kicker!
The first Lions game I ever followed was in 2014. It was week 8 and the Lions were in London to take on the Falcons. I wasn't at Wembley, I wasn't even in the country. I was thousands of miles away in Huye, Rwanda, frantically hitting refresh on a laptop to see if Matt Prater's last minute 48 yard FG would seal an epic comeback. Prater was always money in those moments and his kick gave my Lions fandom the perfect start.
Looking back, I've been spoiled by having Prater as the Lions' kicker for most of my life. We won a lot of games on last minute Prater FGs. Sadly, those days are over. The Lions are still searching for a kicker and the lack of one is definitely hurting the team in key spots. One of the reasons we're going for it a lot on 4th down is we don't have a kicker we can trust from 50+ yards. A reliable kicker that can make them from 50+ yards away would transform this team.
The current man to try his luck is likely to be Michael Badgley. He does have a career long of 59, but only has two season longs of 50+. He seems relatively consistent inside of 50 yards with a career FG average of 81.30% and XP mark of 96.1%. But he just doesn't have Prater's leg strength.
My prediction: Badgley does well, maybe even well enough to win the job going forward, but isn't the new Prater. He consistently struggles on distances of 50+.
What do you think? What did I get right? What did I get wrong (again)? I'll be back after the Thanksgiving game to see how we're doing then. In the meantime, Go Lions!
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