10 QUESTIONS WITH TWENTYMAN: How will Lions game plan for Washington's pass rush?

Every week during the regular season Tim Twentyman will answer 10 good questions from his Twitter account @ttwentyman in a feature we call "10 Questions with Twentyman."

20man: Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and Co. have their work cut out for them this week, that's for sure. Quarterback Matthew Stafford said this week will probably be the best defensive front they face all year. It's hard to argue with that. 

Washington features four first-round picks up front in Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Ryan Kerrigan. Washington has 27 sacks on the year and seven different players with at least 2.0 sacks.

I'd expect to see some max protect situations at times for Detroit, with all hands on deck, including the tight ends and the backs chipping. They really can't afford any breakdowns upfront this week. Guys are going to get beat, it's inevitable, but there can't be any mental miscues or free rushers allowed.

The best way to slow down the Washington pass rush will really be running the ball with some sort of consistency. If they don't and Detroit's offense becomes one dimensional, Stafford and the offensive line could be in for a long afternoon.

20man: The NFL has some of the best defensive minds in the game, and they'll try and take away what an offense does well. Last year, Stafford and the offense under Bevell was a bit of a mystery, and they made a ton of plays down the field early in the season. Stafford led the league in 20-plus-yard completions at the time of his back injury (41). They took their shots and completed a lot of them.

Defensive coaches watch that tape, and the Lions are now seeing a lot of Cover 2 with defenses making a concerted effort to play deep and keep Detroit's receivers in front of them. That's kind of dictated what the Lions do in the passing game. Those 20-plus-yard completions are down to 29 this season, which ranks 13th.

Detroit still has deep shots designed into a lot of their plays, but Stafford just hasn't liked a lot of those looks – especially when Kenny Golladay isn't in there – and he's checked it down more than we're typically used to seeing. Last week, Stafford threw only one pass that went beyond 20 yards in the air. I get taking what the defense gives you, but they have to find a way to stretch a defense more than that. Not having Golladay for almost four games this year hasn't helped. He's their best deep threat, and he doesn't have to be open to make those big plays.

Stafford's also made some poor decisions and some bad throws in opponent territory that have taken points off the board. His turnovers are up vs. this time last year. Those are the two biggest factors into why we've seen his stats down across the board.

20man: Detroit is kind of across the board with pass catchers that rank high and low in the NextGen Stats that track separation from defenders. Golladay is tied for last (1.8 yards), but he's one of the best 50-50 ball receivers in the game, so he makes up for it in that regard.

Marvin Jones Jr. averages 2.4 yards of separation, which is in the bottom 20. For comparison, the top guys in this category are in the 4.8 and 4.7 range.

The two guys who get the best separation for the Lions are wide receiver Danny Amendola (3.7) and tight end T.J. Hockenson (3.5). I think that's why we've seen them lead the team in targets, with Hockenson having 49 targets and Amendola 41.

The bigger concern for me with the pass catchers has been the drops. Detroit ranked 4th in the NFL last year in drop percentage with only 13 drops all year. They already have 13 this season. That to me, has been the bigger issue than guys getting open. They have some guys that can get open, but it doesn't matter if they don't catch the football.

20man: They've been really good. It's a little concerning that kicker Matt Prater has missed six field goals already, but the punting game and the coverage units have been terrific.

The Lions rank sixth in opponent average starting field position after kickoffs at the 24.0 yard line. Opponents are averaging 6.0 yards per punt return, which ranks 11th best.

Punter Jack Fox is No. 1 in the NFL in average hang time on punts (4.75 seconds). He's also No. 1 in gross punting average (52.8) and net punting average (47.7). Through the first half of the season, Fox has been the best punter in the NFL.

20man: The five core young players for me moving forward are…

  1. Golladay, who I think either gets an extension at some point, or is a candidate for the franchise tag. He's in the conversation as one of the 10 best receivers in the game.
  2. Running back D’Andre Swift has shown he can be a dangerous, versatile weapon. He's one of only three rookie running backs with at least 250 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards. His five touchdowns are tied for third among all rookies.
  3. Frank Ragnow is one of the best centers in the NFL in only his third season.
  4. Left tackle Taylor Decker signed an extension this offseason, and he's rewarded the Lions with probably his best season to date. He still hasn't allowed a sack this year and is currently graded in the top eight at the tackle position by Pro Football Focus.
  5. Veteran defensive end Trey Flowers is only 27 years old and signed through 2023. He's Detroit's most consistent defender, and he does things that don't always show up on the stat sheet.

Just looking at this list, the Lions are in better shape offensively with established young talent than they are defensively.

20man: Jeff Okudah is eight games into a rookie season where he didn't get a spring – and the hundreds of reps that come with that – and he had a shortened training camp with no preseason or joint practices. He's essentially learning on the fly, and that's a tough thing to do against the likes of Julio Jones, Davante Adams, DeAndre Hopkins and some of the other top receivers he's played early this season.

I think the thing we have to be positive about is the fact that he's continued to trend upward week to week. From a pure stats perspective, he's been thrown at 41 times, and teams have completed 29 of those (70.7 percent) for 437 yards and one touchdown for a passer rating of 103.4, per Pro Football Focus. The one positive there is the one touchdown allowed. The completion percentage and passer rating are obviously high.

With how unpredictable 2020 has been for all involved, I'm certainly not ready to call any rookie a bust. Okudah continues to get better, and he deserves at least a couple seasons before anyone starts throwing that word around.

20man: Not looking good for your fantasy team.

Golladay's hip injury has prevented him from practicing Wednesday and Thursday this week. That's not a good trend toward playing Sunday. If he also sits out Friday, it's unlikely he plays against Washington. Have a backup plan in place.

20man: It's really a preference thing with Matt Patricia's defense. When he was in New England, they had big, physical linebackers that could get off blocks, stop the run and were strong enough to rush the passer as well. That's what he's tried to bring here with the signings of Christian Jones, Jamie Collins Sr. and Reggie Ragland in free agency, and the drafting of Jahlani Tavai in the second round last year.

Unfortunately, they just aren't having the same impact. They've struggled to get off blocks at times and aren't impacting the run defense enough. Tavai is probably the biggest concern for me. He just hasn't made enough impact plays in his second season. No sacks, no tackles for loss and just one quarterback hit so far this season. He's missed some run fits and some tackles as well.

Davis' issue has always been playing in space, though he's been better in a reduced role.

If the Lions are going to be better on defense, they need their linebackers to play better than they have.

I think there can be a balance between scheming with big, physical linebackers and smaller linebackers with speed. I think one of the issues Detroit has on defense is a lack of overall team speed on that side of the ball.

20man: I know what they want it to be.

"I think something we always try to push for with our team in general is being able to do a good job of in those phases of playing the run game, both offensively and defensively, and doing a good job on special teams of making sure that we cover kicks really well," Patricia said this week, when asked what he wants this team's identity to be.

The Lions rank 24th running the football and are 30th stopping the run, so they aren't playing up to that desired identity. We talked about the special teams above. I think Brayden Coombs has those guys playing well.

I think this team is still trying find its identity, which is one of the reasons why the record is what it is.

20man: They have to stop the run first and foremost. When the Lions have been successful this season, they've been good stopping the run. Washington has the 29th ranked rushing offense in the league (92.3 yards per game), but running back Antonio Gibson is a nice young player, and he can hurt the Lions if they let him. That's No. 1 for me.

Offensively, we talked about it earlier. They have to have some balance on offense if they hope to keep Washington's front four from wrecking the game.

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