Four Downs: Lions' defense shows signs of brighter days

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Damon Harrison

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 31-0 victory over the Green Bay Packers. 

First Down

One of the popular refrains from last offseason, and one you're likely to hear from a Matt Patricia-coached team annually, was "last year is last." The mantra intends to dismiss the idea the past has any impact on the present or future, which given the NFL's season-to-season roster turnover is an understandable point of view. 

But there's something to be said about the adjustments and improvements the Lions made on defense throughout Patricia's first season and the likelihood some of that success can carry over to 2019. 

The biggest improvements came with the run defense, which struggled with the big plays early in the campaign. But the midseason trade acquisition of Damon Harrison added a transformative piece to the front. Over the final nine games, Detroit held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry, and those big plays, they evaporated. 

More: Justin Rogers' Lions grades: Stafford, Zenner, Jones are top stars

The pass defense also seemed to grow more comfortable in Patricia's preferred coverage schemes, but it's admittedly tough to separate some of the statistical success from the less-than-stellar quarterback play the team saw down the stretch. 

Everything will be washed clean to start the 2019 season, but a big chunk of the starting unit should be back in the fold, including Harrison, and schematic comfort is something that should carry over. 

The Lions badly need some specific pieces, primarily an edge rusher to replace what they expected to get out of Ziggy Ansah before a shoulder injury derailed those plans. An upgrade at the second cornerback spot would also be beneficial.

Whoever those pieces end up being, if they can assimilate quickly, the Lions have the potential to have a pretty good defense next season. Especially if those additions can also help increase this year's disappointing turnover production. 

Second Down

Zach Zenner has always had his supporters in this town, ever since the highly-productive collegiate back led the league in preseason rushing as a rookie. But that was followed by three seasons of modest results, explained best by his 3.5 yards per carry. 

But since returning from two broken bones in his back, Zenner has played the best football of his career. The sample size is relatively small, but after his 21-carry, 93-yard performance in the victory of the Green Bay, he finishes the season with 55 carries, 265 yards (4.8 YPC) and three touchdowns. He also provided value as a receiving option out of the backfield and continued to give the team plenty of production on special teams.

More: Niyo: Shine tarnished, Lions' brass turn to critical offseason

With the Lions likely in the market for a complementary piece to Kerryon Johnson, I'm slowly drifting into the camp Zenner can be that guy. His north-south running style, bigger frame and ability to handle any schematic assignment makes him a good fit. And all appearances are he's thriving with the new blocking scheme. 

Zenner will be a free agent, so who knows if he'll get any compelling offers that will price him out of the Lions' desired range, but I would expect the team wants him back. It's simply a question of how big of a role are they willing to give him. 

Third Down

I'm a sucker for trick plays and loved the fake field goal call that put the Lions up 14-0 in the second quarter. The execution was excellent, from tight end Levine Toilolo selling that he was running off the field for a substitution to Don Muhlbach's altered snap angle. Matt Prater's throw, well, it was interesting, but it got the job done. 

And there's always the fascinating element of how the play makes it to the call sheet. In this case, the New England Patriots ran a nearly identical play in 2004, Patricia's first year in the NFL, and for whatever reason it stuck with him. 

But, not to be a Debbie Downer, I question the timing of the call. Not so much the timing in the game, but in the season. Now that the Lions have used this look, it's likely to be out of the rotation, at least for a few years. Why bust it out when you're playing for so little? Couldn't this have come in handy in a close game when a postseason berth was still in play, and if not, shouldn't you tuck it away until next year?

Patricia highlighted the importance of field position for the call to work. Prater had a number of field goal attempts under 35 yards in close loses this season, including a 27-yarder in San Francisco, a 33-yarder in Dallas and a 20-yarder against Chicago on Thanksgiving. 

We'll concede there was something probably identified on film about the way the Packers defended field goals, but still, this moment felt wasted because of its timing. 

Brandon Powell

Fourth Down

Brandon Powell's breakout performance was a good sign for a player the Lions patiently developed on the practice field this season, but there shouldn't be a rush to crown him the best option for the slot in 2019. 

What Powell did with his six-catch, 103-yard outing was play himself into the conversation for next season. But assuming Matthew Stafford will be looking to his slot receiver as often as he has in recent years going forward, finding the right guy for the job is a critical item on the offseason shopping list. 

It would be a shame if the Lions have the chance to upgrade the position via the draft (say Oklahoma's Marquise Brown in the second round) and opt instead to bank on Powell.