Five key questions for the Lions' defense in 2019
Allen Park — Here are five questions the Detroit Lions' defense must answer during the 2019 season
Question: Will the preseason turnover trend continue?
Detroit's defense was a middle-of-the-pack unit a season ago, showing promise in some areas and a necessity for improvement in others. In our opinion, the thing that most held the defense back from being one of the league's best was an inability to consistently turn the ball over. Only the San Francisco 49ers forced fewer than the Lions' 14 takeaways.
Fixing the issue has been a point of emphasis this offseason and the results have shown up during the preseason, particularly when it comes to stripping the ball loose. Given some of the other pieces the unit has added, carrying that success into the regular season could make Detroit's defense one of the league's more-dominant groups.
Question: How good can Tracy Walker be?
A third-round pick a year ago, the Lions had the luxury of easing Walker into the lineup, playing him fewer than 20 snaps in 11 of the first 12 games. By slow-playing their hand with the toolsy defensive back, the Lions were able to narrow Walker's focus, allowing him to build a strong, fundamental foundation.
After moving on from Glover Quin this offseason, the Lions will look to significantly expand Walker's role, testing his ability to handle a full workload. He's flashed as a playmaker on the practice field and has the potential to form a dynamic tandem with Quandre Diggs in the back end.
Question: How much playing time will Jahlani Tavai see?
Assuming Jarrad Davis doesn't miss much time following his ankle injury in the third preseason game, the Lions should have the opportunity to ease Tavai into a role similar to how they did with Walker. That might frustrated some fans, who expect more of an instant impact from a second-round pick, but it's generally best if you don't have to rely heavily on rookies.
Physically, Tavai is a prototype for what Patricia wants at the linebacker position. The Hawaii product is big and strong, capable of taking on and beating larger blockers. But it's a big jump from his college opposition in the Mountain West to the pros.
Tavai showed steady growth during the preseason, especially with his leverage and attack angles, but his coverage ability is likely to lag behind.
Question: Will Rashaan Melvin stabilize the secondary opposite Darius Slay?
In recent years, Detroit's secondary has been something of a strength, with All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay and Quin, a playmaking, former Pro Bowler, patrolling the back end. But the second cornerback job has been the weak spot within that strength.
For the past four years, It was primarily Nevin Lawson holding down that spot. And while he did some things well, he rarely got his hands on passes. In fact, according to Pro Football Reference, no cornerback in NFL history has started more games without recording an interception than Lawson.
The Lions held an open competition to replace Lawson this offseason. Melvin, a free-agent addition, seized on the opportunity. He's probably not a long-term solution, given he's working on a one-year contract, but the tall, long journeyman certainly has a track record of ball skills, tallying four interceptions and 22 pass breakups the past two seasons.
Question: Will the pass rush be adequate?
Like turnovers, Detroit's pass rush was an area of weakness in 2018. Sure, the sack total was decent, ranking in the middle of the pack, but the pressure rate was not. In this era of pass-first football, NFL quarterbacks are ready to punish you if provide them sufficient time to read the defense, set their feet and throw unencumbered. Only the Oakland Raiders were worse at disrupting the pocket than the Lions.
To counter this deficiency, the Lions added two, big-name pass rushers this offseason. First, they backed the armored truck up to the doorstep of former New England defensive end Trey Flowers, then the team scooped up defensive tackle Mike Daniels after he was dropped by the Packers the first week of training camp.
Flowers has been one of the most effective pass-rushers in football in recent years, averaging approximately four quarterback pressures per game. And even though Daniels was limited to 10 games in 2018, his 31 pressures would have ranked third among Detroit linemen last year.
Even if Detroit only manages to climb to league average, that jump in pressure is likely to lead to more sacks, more quarterback mistakes and more turnovers, greatly improving the overall effectiveness of the whole defense.