'Full-speed' approach makes Lions' Romeo Okwara one of NFL's best pass rushers

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

One of the biggest questions the Detroit Lions faced this past offseason was: Who would the team bring in to help the pass rush opposite Trey Flowers? As it turns out, that guy was on the roster all along. 

After a disappointing follow-up to his breakout 2018 season, defensive end Romeo Okwara is more than back on track this year. Not only does he lead the team with 6.0 sacks through nine games — putting him on pace to be the team's first defender with double-digit sacks since Ziggy Ansah in 2017 — Okwara has also been one of the league's most-efficient at pressuring the quarterback. 

Romeo Okwara

According to Pro Football Focus, Okwara has generated pressure 38 times on 223 pass-rush snaps. In terms of rate, the only defenders who have been better are Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt and Joey Bosa. That's three former first-round picks who have each been selected to multiple Pro Bowls. 

Okwara, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2016 and landed in Detroit via a 2018 waiver claim. 

But for as loud as Okwara's performance has been, he remains equally reserved off the field. 

"I would say also just one of the most unselfish people that you could be around," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "We ask him to do so many different things, especially aligning in different positions in some of the stuff that we do, and he just goes in and does it, and he does it to the best of his ability."

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Patricia also praised Okwara's work ethic, noting he's usually one of the last players to leave the practice field, often spending extra time working on his technique. 

Okwara took the same old-school approach to working on his fundamentals during the offseason, training in California with his brother (and now teammate) Julian Okwara, as well as Raiders linebacker and former Notre Dame teammate James Onwualu. 

For many defensive linemen, there's an emphasis on adding new tricks to their bags, but Okwara has a good understanding of his own skill set and prefers building his workout routine around improving what he already does well. 

"I would say honing in on specific moves and just perfecting them and finding out why they don't work sometimes and finding out why they do work sometimes," Okwara said.  "Just really honing on those little details that help you win or lose a rep."

That, combined with the invaluable of experience of playing more than 1,300 defensive snaps the past two seasons, have culminated in this year's success. Those 38 pass-rush pressures are already more than he had a year ago and one shy of the 39 he had in 2018, when he led the Lions with 7.5 sacks. 

"I think his confidence has grown," defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said. "Probably (has) a better understanding for the scheme, and we're just trying to put him in spots where he can have success when he gets out there. He's played a lot of ball for us here."

He's played a lot because he can handle the heavy workload. He proved that in his first year in the team, when he was on the field more than 72 percent of defensive snaps that season, an absurd amount for the position.

Lions defensive end Romeo Okwara strips the ball from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan earlier this season.

That's down quite a bit this year, 62.5 percent to be exact, so it's hardly a surprise he waived off a substitution in the closing minutes of last weekend's win over Washington. That impressed Undlin, who is still in the get-to-know-you phase with his players as a first-year coordinator. 

"He goes full speed on every single snap," Undlin said. "I was trying to get him out and he put his hand up and said, 'I'm not coming out.' I think that's just growth as a person, showing some leadership in some of those situations, that's really come forward for me, at least since I've been here."

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Of course, with Okwara's breakout comes a dilemma, but a good dilemma. He's in the final year of a two-year extension he signed with the Lions and is poised to earn a hefty raise as a free agent this offseason. 

To this point, he says there have been zero conversations with the team on that front, and he claims it's something he never thinks about. 

"I haven't thought about it at all," Okwara said. "I'm just worried about beating the Panthers on Sunday, honestly."

The road trip to play the Panthers will be a homecoming of sorts for Okwara. Born in Nigeria, he moved to North Carolina when he was 10 before eventually starring at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte.

The Panthers are allowing a limited number of fans in their stadium for home games — approximately 5,800 — and Okwara anticipates having some family and friends in the stands on Sunday. 

"Definitely looking forward to it," he said. "I haven't played home in Charlotte since high school. Definitely excited to get back on some Carolina air."