Lions mailbag: Give defensive front time to find footing

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions defensive end Trey Flowers has three tackles -- none for a loss -- in his first two games this season.

Allen Park — It's Thursday and we've got plenty of Detroit Lions mail to sift through. 

► Question. Do you feel that 90, 96 and 98 are still rounding into football shape? And if so, have any of them commented on when they feel they will be? — @legendjc13

► Answer. A completely reasonable question given we haven't seen the impact performance we've been led to expect from Trey Flowers (90), Mike Daniels (96) and Damon Harrison (98). 

Let me say this: None of the players have played poorly. Each has shown flashes of doing what they do best. Teams are still largely avoiding running at Harrison, Flowers is setting strong edges in the ground game and both Daniels and Flowers have generated a bit of quarterback pressure. 

But for three guys working with big deals, you expect more. I get it, and the demand is fair. And you're right, each of those three missed extensive time during the offseason, all technically recovering from injury. Even though they each have a wealth of experience, it does take time to work back into football shape. Let's give it a few more weeks before we get too aggressive with the evaluation of their play. 

Lions returner Jamal Agnew muffed a punt in the season opener against Arizona, and had trouble with ball security in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Chargers.

► Q. Were you surprised to see the team act so quickly on benching Agnew? — @RainCityRoar

► A. No. In fact, after the Arizona game, I wrote about the quickly shortening leash. The muffed punt in Arizona wasn't the first time Jamal Agnew has shown concerning ball security, and the fumble against Los Angeles on Sunday, which was missed by the officiating crew, deservedly led to a quick hook. 

I'm far more curious to see how quickly the Lions go back to Agnew. He's obviously an exceptional talent with the ball in his hands, but it's been a while since we've seen him make a big play, in part due to poor block and in part due to a knee injury that shelved him much of last year. 

► Q. How important is the ground game in getting this offense more productive? Can we increase rushing yards with our current roster and scheme? — @lamos_mary

► A. Running the ball is always important. An efficient ground game forces a defense to commit more resources to stopping it, opening up the passing lanes and setting up play-action. It also runs time off the clock, allowing your defense to get valuable minutes of extra rest. 

And let's be real: Nothing breaks an opponent's will more than running the ball down their throats. 

I absolutely believe the Lions' run offense is better than what it's shown so far. When you watch the individual plays, there's often been good push up front, but maybe one bad block or a missed cut that's causing the play to break down.

The unit isn't being physically overwhelmed. It just needs to iron out some smaller issues to unlock greater production. 

The Lions released running back C.J. Anderson on Tuesday.

► Q. Why do you think the team was so quick to give up on C.J. Anderson? — @RestoreTheRoar6

► A. Sometimes the simplest answer is the actual answer. It's possible, based on the extensive scouting the front office does, management believes Paul Perkins offers a higher ceiling than Anderson, who was averaging 2.7 yards through two games. And, it maybe went unnoticed, but he was also really struggling with his pass-protection assignments, while offering nothing on special teams. 

With the emergence of Ty Johnson as a potentially more dynamic backfield complement to Kerryon Johnson, Perkins offers more versatility out of the backfield, given his pass-catching ability, plus he has a track record of contributing on special teams.  

► Q. Hey Justin, 8-8 miss the playoffs, but are competitive in every game. Does Matty P & Bobby Quinn get another year? — @fduanesmith1

► A. If the Lions are truly competitive each week, and that's the final mark, that would be significant progress from the year before and would likely earn the regime another year to build on its momentum. 

► Q. What’s your opinion on the Lions heavy rotation on the D line? Are you a fan of someone like Flowers missing out on 20+ snaps? — @BenjiDuhGOAT

► A. There's unquestionably value to a rotation along the defensive line, especially when you have talented depth. Romeo Okwara has proven to be a reliable hand, so you can comfortably and confidently give Flowers breathers throughout games. That should keep his legs fresher for strong finishes in individual games, as well as the season. 

► Q. Rick Wagner became the highest paid RT a few years back. Safe to say that signing has been a failure? — @DallonWarragal

► A. Failure is too harsh of a word. Wagner has been solid, not spectacular. He was paid to be spectacular. Therefore, the Lions have not gotten a full return on their investment. That said, it's not like he's missed extensive time or been awful when he's been on the field. 

Let's call it a slight disappointment. 

► Q. What is the biggest need personnel wise that the Lions have? — @whathaschanged

► A. It's a tougher answer than I expected. The starting roster, and many of the depth pieces, are solid. Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman have helped solidify the secondary, Joe Dahl has been better than expected filling the vacant guard spot, and the tight end room is much improved. 

Probably the thing the Lions lack the most is a pass-rusher who can consistently get to the quarterback. Devon Kennard had an awesome season opener, but even with three sacks in that game, double digits feels unlikely. And big sack totals have never been Trey Flowers' game. 

The Lions are sorely missing that element on defense. 

► Q. Should we be concerned with Prater's poor kicking performance? — @ARich69SR

► A. Absolutely not. First of all, we should never be judging anything on one game. Additionally, we have a 55-yard field goal in Week 1 that might have been good from another 8-10 yards. 

Prater isn't Adam Vinatieri, the 46-year-old Colts kicker who has had issues dating to last postseason. Prater is 11 years younger with plenty of leg strength. It was a bad game, likely nothing more. 

► Q. When was the last time the Lions played a complete game on offense, defense and special teams? Also when was the last time we had a running game (blocking) that could end a game? — @marino_dean

► A. Last season, Week 3, against the Patriots. They were also pretty dominant in that Week 7 win over the Dolphins, although they did allow a big run, a 54-yard touchdown. 

In both those games, the Lions had efficient offensive performances, strong defensive showings, ran the ball extremely well and were solid on special teams. 

► Q. Do you like that Ninja is a Lions fan?  — @liberty_kevin

► A. I've never thought about it. I don't see why it's a bad thing. He's from here and his fandom seems nothing but genuine. Given his massive following as an elite professional gamer and streamer, it probably helps bring attention to the Lions to an audience the team wouldn't reach otherwise. 

► Q. Think we will have any interest in Taco? — @TimVanHouten1

► A. Under Quinn, the Lions have shown an interest in adding talent, and as a former first-round pick and college standout, Taco Charlton has talent, even if he has yet to prove it consistently at the professional level. 

I haven't followed Charlton closely enough to know if he's a good scheme fit for what the Lions do, but with his size and length, it wouldn't surprise me to see the team roll the dice. Putting in a waiver claim wouldn't be a big risk. 

More: Wednesday's NFL: Cowboys waive ex-Wolverine, first-round pick Taco Charlton

► Q. Why does the NFL Network forget we are in the NFC North? On a more serious note, how many snaps do you see Ty/JD getting on Sunday to spell Kerryon? — @jaygala0317

► A. You know the answer to the first question, even if you don't want to admit it. Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota have all had more success than Detroit in recent years. You have to earn national attention. One win isn't going to magically open those doors. Beat the Eagles this week and the Chiefs the next and they'll have a tougher time ignoring the Lions. 

As for the backfield rotation, let's talk about it in percentages, since we don't really know if the Lions will get 60 or 80 snaps. 

Kerryon Johnson is obviously going to lead the group. I'd expect him to be on the field for 60-65 percent of the snaps. Ty Johnson should see the biggest increase following the release of C.J. Anderson, with 20-30 percent o the workload. McKissic should also see a boost, and his versatility as a pass-catcher plays well on third downs, as well as creating matchup problems. He could see the field between 10-20 percent of the plays.  

► Q. Is there any kind of controversy at left tackle with Crosby playing so well last week? — @Big_KevRock

► A. No. Not even a little bit. Tyrell Crosby did well with what he was asked to do last Sunday, but the Lions also covered him up a bit, both with help from the team's tight ends and a quick-hitting passing game. As a run blocker, the performance left plenty to be desired. 

Decker was awful in Week 1. There's no sugar-coating that. But the track record of consistency isn't dismissed based on one game. The captain will reclaim his job as soon as he's medically cleared. 

► Q. When Davis comes back will he go outside or will Tavai go to bench? — @aceofbasey8

► A. It's a really good question and one I'm interested in seeing play out. Jahlani Tavai has been better than I anticipated his first couple of weeks. Not flawless, by any means, but instinctual in run support and when dropping into coverage. He's shown the transition from Hawaii to the NFL isn't too big for him. 

As noted earlier, the Lions defense has struggled to get to the quarterback. We know Davis brings some of that ability to the table. I could see a situation where he and Tavai are interchangeable parts moved around to create offensive confusion. 

► Q. Is 2 firsts for Ramsey too much? Is he the piece the Lions need? And when’s the last time, if ever, Detroit has traded for someone as blockbuster as this? — @tsbantle

► A. Yeah, that's too steep of a cost for almost any non-quarterback, but especially for a player who has shown a willingness to put himself ahead of the team. 

Ramsey is an outstanding talent. Easily a top-10 corner and probably top-five at the position. Paired with Darius Slay, there wouldn't be a more imposing tandem in the league. But the acquisition, in many ways, would be cost-prohibitive. 

Let's say it's just a first-rounder and a lesser pick, maybe a third. That's steep, but I won't say the talent doesn't merit the price. You also need to pony up for an extension, which he's been clamoring for in recent months, going as far as to arrive to training camp in the back of an armored truck to drive home the point. 

If you pay Ramsey market value, you're looking at a deal starting around $15 million. Slay has also been looking for an extension. Do you risk alienating him or do you also pay him the market rate? 

Given the Lions made Justin Coleman the league's highest-paid nickel this offseason, that's a huge percentage of the cap to tie up in one position group. You're going to have to make concessions elsewhere on the roster to make it work. 

That's the financial ramifications. The other component is the culture. Lions coach Matt Patricia loathes me-first players. And, unlike his mentor Bill Belichick, Patricia doesn't have the equity to stake on a player capable of bringing discord to a locker room if a season goes south. 

Ramsey isn't a rental, like when the Rams brought in Ndamukong Suh last year. He's a long-term investment that could be tenure-defining for both Patricia and Quinn.

These are the reasons I can't see the team making a play. It's largely a repeat of what I said with Antonio Brown last offseason.  

► Q. What will the impact be for Davis and Hand returning, in terms of playing time for others, and use of both Hand and Davis? — @BeardCoachCo

► A. We already hit on Davis, but let's quickly address Da'Shawn Hand, who I suspect is still a couple of weeks away from returning to action. 

Hand is versatile, able to line up inside and outside, along the line. There's some skill set overlap with Daniels, but Kevin Strong is the one likely to lose most or all of his playing time when Hand returns.

The second-year man out of Alabama also likely will eat into the some of the playing time of Romeo Okwara, who has been playing inside on clear passing downs. That's a spot where you'd like Hand on the field. 

► Q.  What, if any, are the advantages of swapping backup quarterbacks? — @jerrye_taylor

► A. In the short-term, it's difficult to see any advantage. Josh Johnson showed steady progress in the system during the preseason, and given his extensive NFL experience, you felt comfortable with the idea of him coming in as an emergency, in-game fill-in.

But from the long-term perspective, Johnson was a stopgap, while both David Blough and Jeff Driskel offer more developmental promise. 

The Lions are banking on Matthew Stafford to stay healthy enough to play, which he has for more than eight years at this point. And if he does suffer a freak injury, well, it's safe to admit the team probably doesn't have much of a shot to remain competitive without him. 

► Q. Are Patricia and Quinn in snyc? Are they making these personnel decisions together? — @sevans1956

► A. Quinn will never make a roster decision without conferring with Patricia. 

► Q. What key matchups should we look for toward the eagles game on Sunday? — @chrisjlee

► A. On defense, given how banged up the Eagles are at wide receiver, limiting the damage done by Zach Ertz takes on an even greater importance. The Lions have done a decent job keeping tight ends in check under Patricia and it will be interesting to see the coverage combinations the team throws Ertz's way. 

On offense, the Lions have to find to slow down the Eagles defensive line. Fletcher Cox is one of the league's most dominant interior lineman, and the Wide-9 technique coached by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz can quickly stress a pocket from the edges if the offensive tackles aren't on their Ps and Qs. 

► Q. We don’t have a serviceable back up QB to go in for Stafford. We are in a win all mode. Should the Lions pursue Eli Manning as a backup to Stafford? — @azsharkey

► A. As amusing as it would be to see a two-time Super Bowl MVP backing up Stafford, this is in no way realistic. 

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was the Lions head coach from 2009-13.

► Q. I gotta think Jim Schwartz will be the one to break the Coaching the Lions curse where once you are a head coach for the Lions, you won't be a head coach again. Agree or disagree? — @Tim1213

► A. Yes, I agree. Sure, Schwartz rubbed plenty of people the wrong way in Detroit, but he was a young coach who I'm sure has grown over the years. As an Xs and Os guy, he's proven himself over and over. I'm surprised he hasn't gotten more buzz to this point and feel he's built a resume deserving of another head job. 

More: Jim Schwartz could break curse of ex-Lions head coaches

► Q. Even though Stafford seems successful on play action, it seems to me he doesn't sell the fake as well as he could. He kinds of just sticks the ball out and pulls it back quick. Is this by design to get rid of the ball quicker? — @BK_SHAKY

► A. I completely agree that his play fakes are far from convincing. But given the success he's had in his career running play-action, maybe it doesn't matter. 

► Q. What are your thoughts on the special teams struggles through 2 weeks? Quinn/Patricia seem to really value ST contributions when evaluating personnel but currently this team is struggling nearly every ST snap with some type of penalty or mistake. — @BlueSteel313

► A. As noted above, Prater gets a pass. It's one bad game, and it's tough for me to believe it's anything more. Also, on special teams, Sam Martin has been solid, as have the coverage units. The one snafu with those groups was Will Harris allowing the partial block against Arizona

The big problem has been with the return game. That's where most of the penalties are coming, and when there aren't flags, the actual returns have been subpar. 

► Q. You surprised no one has picked up Zenner yet? — @SKOTKNOCKS

► A. A little bit, yeah. He wasn't a star, by any means, but he did a lot of things well, including his special teams contributions. I would think a team would see some third-down value and give him a shot. 

► Q. Why are the Lions rotating OG's? Dahl and Glasgow look like the starters to me. — @SLOcqueoc

► A. I'm not going to lie, I don't get it. There's a case to be made about building chemistry with six guys, just in case injury strikes down the line, but Joe Dahl and Graham Glasgow have been the superior options. 

► Q. The Wire or Breaking Bad? — @WesLedesma

► A: Important closing question.

Give me "The Wire." Both shows were fantastic, and "Breaking Bad" was the rare case where it seemed to get better each season, while the final season of the "The Wire" was disappointing, in my opinion. Still, I enjoyed the depth of the characters more in the latter.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers