For Lions, rematch with Eagles offers benchmark for progress from last season's woes

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — In a rebuilding year full of bumps, lumps and ego bruises, the Detroit Lions' Week 8 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles last season was the closest thing to a knockout blow. 

Yet, in hindsight, that 44-6 drubbing at Ford Field served as a wakeup call and something of a turning point for the Lions. Now, 10 months later, the Eagles return to town as a season-opening measuring stick, well equipped to provide another stiff challenge, as well as some insight into just how far these Lions have really come.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts rushed for 71 yards on seven carries in last season's game against the Lions, as Philadelphia rolled up 236 yards on the ground in the 44-6 victory.

"It was an embarrassing loss," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "They let us have it, they rubbed our nose in it. Listen man, they came in and did everything that they wanted to do they did to us times 10.

"I think we’ve acknowledged that and we understand that that’s what they’re coming back for," Campbell continued. "If I’m them, I’m doing the same thing. We’re going to come back and attack you the same way and see if you’ve fixed any of your problems. Now, they’ll have a couple of tweaks here and there, but I mean, I would fully expect them to come in and see if we’ve fixed our problems. And so, we understand that that’s where we’ve got to be better at."

It's easy to forget that Philadelphia team stumbling into Detroit for that Halloween tilt, having lost five of their previous six games. But in a game that was akin to watching the varsity team scrimmage against the JV squad, the Eagles did whatever they wanted, particularly in the trenches, storming out to a 41-0 lead before the Lions managed to avoid the shutout with a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

 There are a lot of jarring numbers from that box score, but none more than the discrepancy on the ground.  The Lions never got going in that facet of the contest, and understandably had to abandon running the ball as the deficit swelled, finishing with 57 yards on 18 yards. The Eagles, meanwhile, churned out 236 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries, all without the benefit of a gain longer than 21 yards. That emphasized how much they controlled the line of scrimmage that afternoon. 

"Yeah, watching the film, it’s hard watching it, you know what I mean?," Lions defensive end Charles Harris said. "With that, you’ve got to learn from mistakes, and understand we’ve got a good scheme. Different scheme, different team and we’re a lot better team this year."

It's true, the Lions have made schematic adjustments since last season, putting a greater emphasis on attacking up front and having the linebackers and defensive backs support that increased aggression by playing more downhill from the second level. But our introduction to those changes came in the preseason opener, when the Atlanta Falcons gashed the Lions on the ground, with dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota providing much of the damage. 

More: Falcons provide Lions with defensive emphasis heading into season opener

And that's part of what makes the Eagles so dangerous. Quarterback Jalen Hurts can certainty sling it, but he only needed to throw the ball 14 times in last year's blowout. Less surprising, he was a key cog in the rushing attack, contributing 71 yards on seven rushes. 

The Lions are confident they've made the necessary adjustments after the Atlanta game to be better equipped to handle Hurts and the Eagles. 

“Going into that first (preseason) game, there were some kinks there, especially against a mobile quarterback," Harris acknowledged. "Hadn’t seen a lot of that action, but from then on, we did a great job in terms of having a lot more clarity — assignment-focused football, guys knowing their roles, knowing their jobs. With that, our interior, guys on the outside were a lot more confident and sound within our techniques."

And for all the negative emotions revisiting last year's game might conjure, it also can be pointed to as a moment of clarity for the Lions. It was after that game, heading into the team's bye week, where Campbell first acknowledged a commitment to get first-year receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown more involved in the pass game. 

That obviously worked out better than could have been imagined, as St. Brown hauled in eight or more passes each of the final six games of the season, setting franchise rookie records for receptions and receiving yards in the process. 

Defensively, coordinator Aaron Glenn symbolically buried the tape from the first half of the season at the team's practice facility after the loss to the Eagles. And while there were still some hiccups down the stretch, there was also marked improvement, starting with holding the Steelers to 16 points in a tie the first game out of the bye, the Lions' first non-loss of the season. 

"I do think that was somewhat of a turning point last year," Campbell said. "It opened our eyes to some things and I think it forced us to really, well it forced us to have to make some changes on both sides of the ball. We had to do things differently because where we were going wasn’t going to get it cut. It wasn’t going to cut it.

"So yeah, I mean it was somewhat a blessing in disguise, I guess," Campbell continued. "You make the most of something that’s a negative, you turn it into a positive and I felt like we did that to a certain extent."

Detroit has continued that positive momentum into this offseason, including the team's well-received stint on HBO's documentary series, "Hard Knocks." But giving an improved Eagles team a far more competitive matchup in the opener will only further validate what the Lions have been trying to build.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers