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'Unacceptable': Lions' defensive captains cost team with bad penalties

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was a 17-point game late in the third quarter. The Lions, once again, forced a third down.

Not only did they not get the stop — like at so many other points in Sunday's 38-35 season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Ford Field — but they also lost a captain.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts scrambled for a first down and took a late hit from Lions safety Tracy Walker. Hurts' teammates didn't take too kindly to the late hit, and when tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Zach Pascal approached Walker about it, Walker threw a punch and was promptly ejected.

In a game with paper-thin margins, the Lions lost the leader of their defense in the blink of an eye.

"I just let my team down," Walker said. "Me, as a team captain, I've got to be better. I was hot-headed at the moment and I've just got to make better decisions at the end of the day."

Lions safety Tracy Walker (21) hits Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts after he is down, with teammate Alex Anzalone on the play, and is ejected from the game in the third quarter.

It was poor timing for the Lions, of course, but also poor timing for Walker, too. He was in the midst of putting up a career game. With his sack of Hurts near the end of the first half, he became the second Lions defensive back to have a half with at least eight tackles and one sack. Despite exiting near the end of the third quarter, he finished with a team-high 11 tackles.

Walker's play was the second in a line of thoughtless aggressiveness by Lions' defensive captains. Earlier in the quarter, linebacker Alex Anzalone allowed the Eagles to tack 15 yards onto a 24-yard run by Miles Sanders. Hurts handed the ball off to Sanders on a zone read and took a huge shot from Anzalone after handing off the ball, which gave Philadelphia a first-and-10 at the Lions' 14-yard line.

Lions coach Dan Campbell said that he didn't see the plays live but found it "not good" that Detroit's two defensive captains allowed emotions to get the best of them.

"Now, I know Tracy got kicked out because of a second penalty, right? Which is unacceptable and he knows that," Campbell said. "That's not OK. And that's not what we're looking for because that's how you get beat and those guys know that."

Okudah's return

Jeff Okudah's return to action Sunday fell short, in the sense that it was a loss.

But on a personal level, it was a rousing victory for the former No. 3 overall pick out of Ohio State who struggled his rookie season and had his second year ended by an Achilles injury in last season's opener.

"I think I did pretty well, but at the end of the day, it's all about the win," Okudah said. "That's something that we preach upon, and the win is what's going to change the narrative about the Detroit Lions."

More: Justin Rogers' Lions grades: Jared Goff recovers, but defense struggles vs. Eagles

Okudah said that he was tasked with covering second-year Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith, who had zero catches on four targets. 

"I feel like I held my own against him, so I would count that as a small win," Okudah said.

In fact, Okudah played so well that after one of Philadelphia's biggest plays in the first half, the question on everyone's minds was: Why wasn't Okudah out there? Will Harris got beat down the sideline by Eagles receiver A.J. Brown for a 54-yard reception that allowed the Eagles to go up two scores before the half.

Okudah said that he missed that snap (and others) because of cramps, which disputed Campbell's claim that Detroit had always planned to be "smart with (Okudah's) reps."

"We just got him back and he's in a good place," Campbell said. "We were just trying to — let's monitor a little bit and not overdo it, but yet certainly get him his plays. We're trying to work a couple of guys that way to be smart."

Stenberg starts

Two weeks ago, there were serious question marks surrounding whether offensive lineman Logan Stenberg would make the Lions out of camp.

So imagine the feeling he had on Sunday as the Lions opened their 2022 season at Ford Field. Stenberg, 25, wasn’t just on the team. He ran out of the tunnel after being announced as a starter at right guard, a position he had never played in college or a live NFL game.

“It felt great,” Stenberg said afterward. “It validated some hard work that I’ve put in. It just felt good to get out there with my boys. There’s a lot to clean up, a lot to get better with, but it was a good starting point.”

All the shuffling on Detroit’s offensive line last season should have earned him a start in 2021. But instead, a torn MCL left that job up to Tommy Kraemer while Stenberg watched the games alongside injured center Frank Ragnow.

There were some bumps along the way on Sunday. Stenberg had two false start penalties and allowed Eagles defensive tackle Milton Williams to race past him on a drop back from Jared Goff, which was rushed and ended in a pick-six.

But in the second half, Stenberg settled in and looked to be a viable option at right guard for Detroit going forward.

“Switching sides and going against (Eagles defensive tackle) Fletcher Cox on your first day isn’t ideal, but I think I got it done. Like I said, a lot to learn from,” Stenberg said. “It’s good people every week. It’s Fletcher Cox this week, (Commanders defensive tackle) Daron Payne next week, so it’s — not that I’m looking forward, but it’s every week.”

nbianchi@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nolanbianchi