Acompelling run on HBO’s Hard Knocks has thrust the Detroit Lions into the spotlight. With the regular season days away, Dan Campbell’s young roster have high hopes after a dismal 2021 campaign, when they won just three games, the latest episode in an extraordinary run of mediocrity that has seen the Lions fail to win a playoff game since the 1991 season.
General manager Brad Holmes chose against making any splashy signings in free agency, and the regime is counting on continuity breeding better results after going 3-13-1 last season. The focus appears to be on balancing established veterans with younger prospects to build on encouraging signs from last season, not least the 37-30 victory over Green Bay on the final day.
Jared Goff once again leads the Lions at quarterback with pressure growing on him to rebound from a so-so year as a salary cap hit north of $30m looms large. Campbell’s profane praise of Goff in practice – “You’re on fire right now. I’m telling you, man, I feel … fuck”– in the penultimate episode of Hard Knocks is what you would expect when the cameras are rolling. But Goff has been a minor player in the series, perhaps signaling a desire from the Lions to keep the underachieving QB focused on delivering better results.
Even with Goff at the peak of his powers, a high-powered Lions’ passing attack look slim. The numbers from his debut season with the Lions were poor (3,245 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions), suggesting the periods of success he enjoyed with the Rams earlier in his career were mainly down to the quality of his teammates and head coach.
The 27-year-old may looks like a handbrake on offense but his supporting cast has improved and could tip the scales in favour of production more in tune with his time with the Rams. Detroit have addressed a glaring lack of speed in their receiver room by adding DJ Chark and rookie Jameson Williams. They definitely needed some zip after finishing rock bottom in average depth of target in 2021 at 6.8 yards. The Lions will be looking to be more aggressive on passing downs when the new duo’s speed is married with the return of solid performers, TJ Hockenson and Amon-Ra St Brown.
The pass catchers are still toward the lower echelons of the league, but Detroit can look to the offensive line to pick up any slack thanks to the immense strength across each position. Taylor Decker is a highly dependable left tackle, and center Frank Ragnow is among the best centers in the league. The Lions sorely missed Ragnow when his season ended in week four of 2021 but the fact their unit still finished 13th overall per Pro Football Focus highlights how punishing they could be with him back on board. When you include left guard Jonah Jackson, along with Penei Sewell following a formidable rookie season, the opportunity is there for the Lions to have the best offensive front in the NFL.
If the dominant line improves they should provide the team with a running game – which in turn could further take pressure off Goff and help him rebound. Neither D’Andre Swift nor Jamaal Williams has shown an elite level of talent; if the offensive line can open some running lanes, Swift could have a breakout year.
The Lions’ defense is where things begin to feel like groundhog day. To coordinator Aaron Glenn’s credit they look unlikely to plumb the historic depths of Matt Patricia’s final season, but they were in the bottom five last year owing to inexperience and injury while Hard Knocks has shown the defensive coach’s frustrations at times with his crew. After allowing the offense to walk all over them in practice Glenn has not held back in his criticism. “That’s not fucking football. That’s not secondary play or linebacker play,” he said. “This is losing football.”
Glenn has his finger on the pulse. Inexperience could play a huge role in snatching any progress the offense makes as the Lions spent six of their eight 2022 draft picks on defense to desperately try and improve. The standout of that class is clear: edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, the No 2 overall selection, has had an impressive preseason. The 6ft 7in, 260lbs end fits well in his home town and will add some much-needed bite to a pass rush that finished 30th in sacks last season. Quarterback pressure may also be dialed up when Romeo Okwara returns later in the season. Okwara bagged 10 of a team total 14 sacks in 2020.
The biggest question will be whether Jeff Okudah, who has earned the lead role in the secondary in camp, can avoid being labelled a catastrophic bust. So far the third overall pick in 2020 has disappointed, allowing a 121.8 passer rating in his coverage. But the Lions have kept faith in him moving into 2022 after he suffered a ruptured achilles tendon, which wiped out his 2021 season. The problems surrounding Okudah are not insurmountable – he is still only 23 – but a player as unreliable as this leading the backfield speaks volumes of how disastrous their pass coverage could be.
What feels most certain for the Lions is an improvement on Campbell’s first season. The coach has his feet firmly under the table and the signs from Hard Knocks are that his players buy into his blood and thunder coaching. How Goff and the offensive improvements come together to counterbalance any stagnation on defence will be crucial. There is now playmaking talent matched with an offensive line that can take control of a contest – dare we think the Lions can win seven games? Maybe, but first pretend subtext doesn’t exist for a second as you allow Goff’s ultra confidence at training camp to really convince you, because as the quarterback says, “Who needs coaches, you know?”