Here are five questions the Detroit Lions defense must answer.
Where will the pass rush come from?
As the NFL has evolved into a pass-first league, we are in a golden age of quarterback play. The Lions face an interesting slate of passers this season. There’s a reasonable chance they see three first-round rookies in Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen, but there’s also Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo, who all signed new deals this offseason, making them three of the four highest-paid players in history. Oh, there’s also some guy named Tom Brady on the docket.
And while you always have to be on your Ps and Qs for All-Pro studs such as Brady and Rodgers, even an average NFL quarterback can dissect a defense if he’s afforded a clean pocket to make his reads.
That presents a problem for the Lions, who despite being a blitz-heavy defense in 2017, were among the worst in the league at pressuring the passer. And what’s changed this offseason? Not much of note on the personnel front. The biggest addition was rush linebacker Devon Kennard, who generated just 14 pressures in 15 games for the New York Giants last season.
A healthy Ziggy Ansah would go a long way, but it’s difficult to bank on that given what we’ve seen the past two seasons. It’s likely going to be up to coach Matt Patricia to cook up pressure within his scheme, as opposed to relying on the front four to consistently win their individual matchups.
Will Davis make a leap?
The Lions drafted Jarrad Davis a year ago with the idea he’d be a three-down rock at the center of the defense for the next several years, but passing-down situations have proved problematic to start his pro career.
Davis had his role reduced late last season, which isn’t all that unusual giving the difficult transition rookies face, but some of the same coverage issues that plagued him a year ago have cropped up again this offseason.
In addition to the coverage woes, Davis also has a propensity for taking bad angles and missing tackles. Those, too, have shown up again in the preseason, with a trio of whiffs in the third preseason game. That’s not the dress-rehearsal performance the Lions wanted to see.
Detroit is counting on Davis. Individual improvement, at such a key spot on the field, will got a long way toward the early success of Patricia’s defense.
Will CB2 be a weak spot?
Detroit entered the offseason seemingly with three capable contenders to start at cornerback opposite Darius Slay, and through the preseason, none inspired confidence they’re ready for the role.
Free-agent signing DeShawn Shead didn’t even make it to the season, getting cut when the team established its 53-man roster.
Teez Tabor has been even more disappointing. Like Davis, Tabor is expected to make a significant jump in his performance in his second season. But throughout the offseason, he struggled to stay with his coverage assignment, even when defending second- and third-string receivers in practice.
Nevin Lawson was always the safe option, an experienced hand. On the practice field, he’s looked, far and away, like the best choice to start the year. But that hasn’t carried over to the preseason games, where he’s been attacked as the weak link in the back end.
The Lions need someone to step up and seize the spot, or, at the very least, come up with a situational rotation to hide the deficiencies, before attempting to address the spot again next offseason.
Can anyone set an edge?
Pass rush is more important, but good luck finding an NFL defense not first focused on stopping the run, aiming of making their opponent one-dimensional each week.
After a strong start last season, the Lions’ run defense withered down the stretch. Now, the team is switching schemes, and with a front designed to control multiple gaps, they should be in better position to hinder opposing ball carriers.
But in the preseason, Detroit has looked physically overmatched in the trenches, and even more so on the edges.
The Lions showed steady improvement in this department as the preseason progressed, at least until the Browns dominated the backup defenders. The Lions need to be better than the 4.2 YPC they allowed last season and much better than the 4.7 average allowed by Patricia’s New England defense in 2017.
Is this Quin's swan song?
Glover Quin is arguably one the most underrated athletes in Detroit sports history. He’s not a big hitter or a freakish athlete, he’s simply been a quietly efficient playmaker thanks to his superior football IQ and instincts.
But the reality is Quin’s long in the tooth, and while he hasn’t previously shown any signs of slowing down, he’ll turn 33 in January, a senior citizen in the world of professional football.
After skipping the voluntary portion of the offseason for the first time in his career, and with an $8 million cap hit next season, the Lions could conceivably look to move on in 2019, assuming he doesn’t retire first. So, if this is it, soak it in Lions fans. They don’t make many like Quin.