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Lions mailbag: What's going on with the defense?

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
The Lions' defense gave up 467 total yards of offense in Sunday's dramatic 39-35 win over the Colts.

Allen Park -- Now that we're into the regular season, Tuesday seems like a good time for a weekly Lions mailbag. Without further adieu, here are this week's questions.

@Justin_Rogers Was there any thought to signing Josh Sitton, given Laken Tomlinson's struggles? Where is the front office with Tomlinson?

— Jim Shilander (@jimmyshi03) September 13, 2016

Sitton is still a good player, and he proved that in his first game with the Bears, but when you have first-round money invested in a young player, it just doesn't make sense to throw a deal averaging $7 million per year at a 30-year-old option.

As I acknowledged in my film review, Tomlinson had some blown blocks in the opener, but start to finish, 70 snaps, he was fine, contributing to the overall offensive performance. While it's understandable to have lofty expectations for a first-round talent, particularly at a position that doesn't generate many first-round picks, you have to understand, Tomlinson is still a young player who is going to be prone to struggles with consistency.

If he's not making strides in his development by mid-season, Joe Dahl will be waiting in the wings for an opportunity, and he costs a lot less than $7 million.

@Justin_Rogers @detroitnews which lions are we gonna see all year? The first half or second half Lion's?

— Gavin Hudson Long (@GavTheMav) September 13, 2016

You're probably going to see a little from column A, a little from column B, but more than likely a lot more from column C, the happy middle between those two versions. I'm a believer in this offense, especially the passing game. It's probably going to be the most consistent thing about the Lions, but there are still going to be struggles, whether it's drops, interceptions or poor blocking.

The run game will probably regress. Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah were electric against the Colts, but it's highly unlikely they'll average close to six yards per carry all year.

Where I expect you'll see more consistency is the defense. Teams aren't going to be able to check Ezekiel Ansah, Devin Taylor and Haloti Ngata all year. And if Detroit gets better, more consistent pass-rush pressure, the entire defense is going to perform better.

Theo Riddick was a bright spot for the Lions in both the run and pass game as he tallied 108 yards of total offense and two touchdowns.

@Justin_Rogers are you surprised at Golden Tate's lack of plays drawn up for him?

— James Eisengruber (@jjeisy) September 13, 2016

Nope. There are too many weapons on the offense, so each week, as Jim Caldwell loves to remind us, it's going to be a little bit different. You might see a game where Tate catches 12 balls and another where he catches two and Marvin Jones or Eric Ebron lead the way.

@Justin_Rogers How much of the poor showing in the secondary in the 2nd half had to do with lack of pressure on Luck? Where was Ziggy?

— Dave Whynacht (@Geeynots) September 13, 2016

The Colts' success passing the ball was a combination of poor coverage, poor pass rush and the exceptional skill of Andrew Luck, one of the game's better downfield passers. It starts upfront. The Lions simply have to get more pressure. Now, to be fair, the Colts did some stuff at the line, mainly with double-teams and chips, to slow down Detroit's edge rushers, namely Ansah. They also got rid of it quickly when Detroit's top group was out there.

Each week, opponents will have to decide whether to stay back and protect their passer or send another receiver or two out on routes. The Colts speedy receivers were able to do just fine with two- and three-man routes, but future opponents might have to approach it differently, based on their skill position players' skill sets. Ansah won't be kept at bay for long.

@Justin_Rogers If DET didn't have Dahl active for last week's game, which position group got the game-day boost?

— Dustin Schwartz (@FreedomGunfire) September 13, 2016

Technically the secondary, with all five safeties and all five cornerbacks active, but it really was about special teams. That's common with those final spots. Miles Killebrew, Don Carey and rookie cornerback Adairius Barnes were all primarily used on special teams. The same can be said for the ninth defensive lineman active for the contest, defensive end Brandon Copeland.

@Justin_Rogers Most disappointing starter in game one. Most impressive backup.

— Super Randomish (@SuperRandomish) September 13, 2016

Most disappointing starter for me was Taylor. While Ansah didn't do a whole lot, he at least got some pressure while facing more double-teams. Taylor had a nice season last year and closed strong, but he couldn't generate any pressure from the opposite edge against the Colts.

As for the most impressive backup, how can it not be Riddick? He was exceptional, both as a rusher and a receiver. The latter isn't surprising, but it's the first time we've seen those kinds of plays from him as a ball carrier.

Also, have to tip your cap to defensive end Kerry Hyder, who was one of the final players to make the roster. He goes out and gets two sacks and was also disruptive on a couple other plays. He's pushing for a bigger role in the defense.

@Justin_Rogers Who designs the Color Rush jerseys? Each individual team or someone for the NFL overseeing all teams?

— Andy Walsh (@AndyWalsh3) September 13, 2016

Nike designs them, with input from the league and teams.

If my input was taken into consideration, the Lions' version wouldn't have been black. If Matt Millen liked black jerseys, you know they can't be good.

@Justin_Rogers What does Zach Zenner have to do to crack the line up again? Or what does Washington have to fail to do?

— Don Hammond (@no1rabbit_troll) September 13, 2016

It's going to sound cliche, but he has to practice well and have Washington not do much with his opportunities. So far, the rookie has only taken two hand-offs, both just shy of the goal line, plunging into the end zone with the second. As long as the rookie is productive, healthy and protects the ball, he'll likely continue to play over Zenner.

@Justin_Rogers Could Riddick and Abdullah be the best back tandem in the NFL if they have another strong game?

— Rob Francisco (@rfrancis99) September 13, 2016

Whoa, whoa, whoa. That's a colossal overreaction to one game.

Now, I believe what you saw from Abdullah is the real deal. He's elusive, quick, has good vision and is decisive. He's everything you want in a running back, outside of being on the smaller side, limiting his workload. This production from Riddick is new. Before this game he was averaging about three yards per carry, which is awful. He needs to show a lot more, as a rusher, before I fully buy in.

Better running back tandems, right now, are as follows:

Arizona's David Johnson and Chris Johnson, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Jerick McKinnon, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles and Spencer Ware, Dallas' Ezekiel Elliot and Darren McFadden, Cincinnati's Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard, Tampa Bay's Doug Martin and Charles Sims and Los Angeles' Todd Gurley and whoever his backup is this year.

I might have even left three or four off that list, but Abdullah and Riddick are still way back from the top groups and must prove themselves for at least a full season before we're talking about them as a top tandem.

Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead had a rough day defending the Colts tight ends, who accounted for three touchdowns.

@Justin_Rogers why did the Lions linebackers struggle so much covering the Colts TEs?

— Brad Swadling (@bradswadling) September 13, 2016

It wasn't just against the Colts. The Lions gave up more touchdowns than any team against tight ends last year. At least then you could blame it on DeAndre Levy being out of the lineup.

A lot of the failures last week came in zone coverage, which is partly skills, but largely communication. There are some new pieces in the defense and some parts that have moved around. The adjustment is obviously off to a rocky start, but based on coordinator Teryl Austin's history, I would expect steady improvement over the course of the season.

And as mentioned, a good pass rush will help cover up issues in the secondary.

@Justin_Rogers 2016 Lions vs (2nd half) 2015 Lions - are they looking better, worse, or the same in each phase as the team that finished 6-2

— PatBerWA (@PatBerWA) September 13, 2016

Offensively, better. Special teams, also better, although I'm not particularly excited about Andre Roberts as the return man. Defensively, worse.

Then again, it's only been one game. Let's reassess after the first quarter of the season is in the books.