Lions coach Matt Patricia discusses why the Dallas Cowboys defense has been so effective to start the season. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park — Football is football.
That's a common cliche hurled around by NFL coaches and players, but it's disingenuous. While the core elements of the game don't change — running, passing, covering, tackling — there are so many nuances from scheme to scheme, from technique to technique, that it's not easy to plug in a random player off the street and expect them to perform to the same level as a player that's been in a system for multiple years, even if the talent is equal.
But the Detroit Lions have had success with not one, but two late additions to the defense before the start of the season.
Unwanted by their previous employers, the Lions swung a trade for former third-round pick Eli Harold and plucked defensive end Romeo Okwara off waivers. And in just a few short weeks, both are making significant contributions for the Lions.
"They’re working on base technique and base fundamentals and what their assignment and alignment rules are, and they’re working really pretty hard at it," defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. "I wouldn’t say that our techniques are any more difficult than anybody else’s technique. I think technique is technique. I think how you play off of a block, how you take on a block, how you tackle, all those things are base fundamentals of the game. And they certainly have a foundation, a base, of that. We’re trying to improve that, they’re trying to improve it. And you’re right, they have hit the ground running."
In three seasons with the 49ers, Harold recorded 5.0 sacks in 48 games. He's already dropped the quarterback in the backfield three times for the Lions. He said his sudden success has generated plenty of angry emails and social media messages from 49ers fans.
"The San Fran fans are hating still, like, 'Where was this?'" Harold said. "It's a change of scheme, a change of scenery, an opportunity.
"I didn't really have an opportunity to rush in San Fran," he said. "I did, but it would be spur of the moment. I never really had an opportunity to feel the flow of the game from a pass-rushing situation. I was always an on-the-ball linebacker, setting the edge and coming off the field on third down."
Okwara's impact has been a little more muted, recording two tackles in two games, but the rangy defensive end is putting his length to good use as an edge setter. And with Ziggy Ansah out with a shoulder injury, Okwara has stepped up to handle the workload, playing more than 70 snaps the past two weeks.
"He obviously played a lot, too, before we got him, so it wasn’t a situation where he wasn’t in football shape or anything like that," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "It was just really a question of him being able to come in and step into a role and master that role as fast as possible. It was on us to make sure we gave him something that he could handle from that standpoint as he’s still learning our system and learning some of the terminology, which he’s done a good job."