Lions' cornerback Jeff Okudah balancing aggression, discipline in Year 2
Allen Park — Jeff Okudah got greedy. The Detroit Lions cornerback thought he saw something before the snap, tried to jump the route he envisioned the receiver would run and got badly burnt by a deep ball in a preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend.
Okudah compared the mistake to a different type of burn, one where a toddler places their hand on a hot stove. And much like the idiom goes, he plans to learn from the mistake so that it won't happen again.
"I think the more you play, the higher your football IQ gets," Okudah said. "You learn when to take calculated risks. ...That was one of those moments where I felt like it was really self-inflicted. I learned a lot from it and I think it'll make me a better player going forward."
Okudah's coaches were disappointed by the result of the play, and the fact Okudah didn't follow his pre- and post-snap keys, but one thing no one is taking issue with is the second-year cornerback's mindset. He thought he had a chance to generate a takeaway and the Lions are trying to instill that kind of aggression in the defensive backs after the team has struggled to generate turnovers the past couple seasons.
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Defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant never wants his guys to play scared, to be afraid to take take a chance to make a play because of what will happen if they fail. But Pleasant also demands that his guys remain disciplined, true to the techniques they are taught on the practice field.
He calls the balance "controlled aggression."
Coach Dan Campbell is in lockstep with his assistant regarding this philosophy.
"I want those guys to cut it loose," Campbell said. "Nobody wants to give up an explosive play. No head coach wants that for their defense, but if you’re asking me, I would rather them be aggressive, get in their face and let’s go to work and do what you’re coached to do.
"With Okudah, he felt like there was a dagger coming and so he’s guessing," Campbell said. "Just play your keys. Do what (Pleasant) taught you, what he taught you to do and we’ll be just fine. He’ll do that and as long as he does that, we won’t have a problem, but I would rather be aggressive than conservative."
In addition to maintaining his aggressiveness, another well-established football lesson Okudah has been focused on this offseason is honing his short-term memory. It's critically important for cornerbacks to be able to mentally reset after a mistake.
Okudah acknowledges it hasn't always been easy for him. He has a tendency to take his on-field errors personally and it's something both Pleasant and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have been working to get out of his system.
"I think you just got to take every play as its own play, don't try to compound plays together, because that's kind of how you tend to have snowball, avalanche-type effect, when you start compounding bad play, and it leads to another one," Okudah said. "So just taking it in the present moment, taking every play as a new play. That's the best way to approach it, for me at least."
While it might take a few weeks to understand whether Okudah learned his lesson from giving up the deep completion, his ability to not let that bad play impact him beyond the moment shined brightly against Pittsburgh.
Before exiting in the second quarter, Okudah played a key role in a run stop near the goal line, firing toward the line of scrimmage to seal the edge, funneling the running back into the waiting arms of a linebacker.
And when the Steelers attempted to test Okudah deep a second time, this one a shot to end zone intended for former Pro Bowler JuJu Smith-Schuster, the corner was there to break the pass up, utilizing the techniques and training provided by his coaches.
"He tried to give me some sauce at the line," Okudah said. "In the red zone, they teach us to play through the hands a lot of times because when you look back, sometimes that ball is coming out so much faster than in the open field, so it can be put in a lot of different locations. Really, just playing through your hands is the best. At that point, you're really keying the receivers eyes and hands, because the eyes tell the whole story. A lot of times, receivers, for the most part, their eyes tend to get a little bit bigger."
While his coaches will undoubtedly use the surrendered deep completion as a teaching moment, Okudah's resiliency is the bigger takeaway for the coaching staff.
"This is the NFL," Glenn said. "He’s going to give up a play. He’s a good player, he’s been practicing hard. His eyes go bad and he gave up a play. But there’s been a lot of plays he has made. At some point we’ve got to talk about those plays he has made instead of the one he didn’t make."
The reality with Okudah is he's still a young player who has a lot of learning to do. Pleasant noted that Okudah is being to asked to do so much more at this level than he was at Ohio State, where he earned the unanimous All-American honors that propelled him to being selected No. 3 overall in last year's draft.
"I feel good," Okudah said. "I think I have a lot of confidence going into Year 2. Been able to take a lot of reps, been able to see a lot of different things, and just being around the whole energy in Detroit has been really great for me. I'm excited for Year 2, whatever it has to offer."