The locker room is completely different lately. There’s extra music. Sometimes, they’ll play playing cards in there. Shortly after Dan Campbell introduced his new employees to Detroit, assistant head coach Duce Staley took one take a look at the workforce’s area in Allen Park and made strategies. As a consequence, there at the moment are couches and pool tables and locations to simply hang around.
The gamers aren’t solely allowed to be themselves after (and through) work now, they’re inspired to. There’s ping-pong. They had a team-only Halloween costume contest. The greatest distinction in a Lions locker room lately: When a apply or recreation ends, there’s not a rush to the exit or overheard conversations about the place a man may have the ability to get an excellent steak — alone — after one other embarrassing loss.
After Sunday’s 40-14 win over Jacksonville, huddled in his locker with socks, sneakers and shoulder pads in all places, and carrying the look of satisfaction that solely comes after successful an NFL recreation, 22-year-old Penei Sewell smiled and talked concerning the new greatest a part of his life: his new child son, Malakai.
Then, instantly and with out warning, Sewell — the primary draft choose made by the Campbell-Brad Holmes regime — started talking with a extra severe tone as he acquired to the basis of why the Lions have turned a nook.
“Everybody in this locker room,” Sewell mentioned, gesturing broadly, “we actually, genuinely care about each other. We hold each other accountable. That’s how you build a team.”
Same previous Lions? Taylor Decker already told you they don’t stay right here anymore. At this level, it’s solely on you if you happen to didn’t hear. Suddenly 5-7 and with 4 wins within the final 5, Detroit not seems to be just like the talent-dry group of try-hards who went 3-13-1 in Campbell’s first yr.
Holmes’ complete 2022 draft class was energetic and current for obligation throughout that blowout of the Jaguars. Sewell, receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and defensive deal with Alim McNeill are three of one of the best second-year gamers within the NFL. Edge Aidan Hutchinson, security Kerby Joseph and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez have sparkled defensively as rookies. There are gamers like nook Jerry Jacobs and heart/guard Evan Brown, too, younger guys no person else needed who’ve turned gamers this workforce can’t stay with out.
The Lions — nonetheless house owners of two first-round picks in 2023 — have emerged from the rubble left behind by Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia and are not hopeless. Far from it. There’s optimistic momentum in Detroit lately, however there’s additionally an precise plan for the longer term. One that is sensible.
How’d we get right here?
“The Dan Johnson Offense.”
No one truly calls it this, by the best way. I simply made it up. Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson (who completely deserves the nationwide consideration he’s acquired this season as a younger, forward-thinking play caller) have recognized one another for a decade, courting again to Campbell’s time as a naive-yet-passionate, 36-year-old interim head coach in Miami. Alongside him, Johnson was a quiet-yet-brilliant, 28-year-old assistant quarterbacks coach.
“I do believe in this team.” pic.twitter.com/BDaEBQhYGS
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 5, 2022
Among people who really know Campbell, there are two agreed-upon certainties. First, if you’re actually considered one of his loyal pals, he’ll attempt to transfer the planet for you when requested. Second, he’s smarter than he permits you to suppose he’s. And not, like, just a bit bit smarter. Quite a bit.
And whereas, from situational choices throughout video games to week-to-week roster decisions, Campbell is completely nonetheless studying tips on how to be a head coach within the NFL, his information of offensive soccer is as excessive as any head coach on this league. It’s why randomly, and for causes that few might work out on the time, he retained Johnson from Patricia’s employees. By the center of the 2021 season, after Campbell eliminated play-calling duties from Anthony Lynn, Johnson and Campbell had redesigned Detroit’s offense collectively. They spent the remainder of the yr calling performs in tandem.
Now it’s Johnson’s present, however Campbell’s arms stay in the whole lot.
So I’m dubbing it “The Dan Johnson Offense” not simply because there are two architects, but in addition as a result of that’s a easy identify. Sometimes in life, one of the best issues are probably the most simplistic. Johnson and Campbell haven’t created a brand new model of soccer, they’ve created their very own system that revolves round toughness (bodily and psychological) and logic.
Detroit’s offensive line is among the many greatest within the league. Sewell, Frank Ragnow and Decker are all first-round picks. Jonah Jackson, arguably Quinn’s greatest draft worth as a third-rounder in 2020, is among the many most underrated guards in soccer. All 4 are athletic huge males, which permits Detroit to make use of a run recreation that’s as numerous because it will get within the NFL.
The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen charted 16 completely different run ideas utilized by Detroit over the primary two video games of the yr (which is a ton). That quantity has since elevated. But, extra importantly, Johnson fastidiously packages and organizes when, the place and precisely tips on how to deploy each considered one of them. Jamaal Williams has a league-best 14 dashing touchdowns and Detroit ranks No. 10 within the NFL at 127 dashing yards per recreation.
The Lions aren’t afraid to run the ball on third-and-medium, out of any formation. Teams need to be on alert for that whereas additionally worrying about St. Brown, who is popping into one of many hardest slots within the league.
St. Brown does the whole lot. So a lot concerning the philosophy behind Campbell’s offensive strategy is matchup-based, one thing he borrowed from Sean Payton and finally derived from Bill Parcells. The greatest option to transfer the soccer is to get your greatest man in opposition to somebody who isn’t pretty much as good, then feed him the ball.
For this workforce, meaning when the chips are down, they search for St. Brown. Jared Goff calls St. Brown a “friendly target,” one of many biggest compliments a quarterback will pay a receiver. St. Brown, who set an NFL file in Week 2 together with his sixth straight recreation of no less than eight catches and one TD, has 76 catches, 830 yards and 6 touchdowns by 11 appearances this season. He’s additionally rushed for a rating.
“For a quarterback, ‘friendly’ is a guy who always comes back to the ball,” Goff mentioned. “Always catches the ball, even if it’s thrown away from his body. Always where he needs to be. Understands coverage. Understands what I’m looking at. Always asking questions. Comes downhill when he’s breaking out (on a route) to make sure a guy can’t make a play on it. Little things.
“He’s a guy I’m lucky to play with. The sky is the limit for him.”
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Offensively, the Lions have had flashes of dominance, particularly on the bottom. Detroit ranks No. 9 in complete offense DVOA, a tick forward of Green Bay as the highest offense within the NFC North. That’s hardly a certificates price framing, however for the Lions — the second-youngest workforce within the league when the season began — it’s an enormous deal.
The way forward for this soccer workforce lives in Sewell (22), Ragnow (26) and St. Brown (23), amongst others. The value of admission for the remainder of the roster can be to match the toughness of these three — nothing extra, nothing much less.
The future might additionally characteristic Goff, who at 28 is lastly beginning to seem like the man who as soon as performed in a Super Bowl. It has not been simple or easy. At the deadline, Detroit traded away T.J. Hockenson, one other participant who’d been a “friendly target” for Goff. Detroit’s QB wasn’t pleased with the transfer and didn’t do a lot to cover that.
However, he’s additionally accomplished one thing about it. Goff (3,022 yards, 19 TDs, 7 INTs this season) has thrown seven touchdowns to at least one interception since Hockenson moved to Minnesota. Hockenson’s departure has allowed the Lions to unfold reps amongst different younger gamers like rookie tight finish James Mitchell, whereas additionally utilizing extra personnel teams that aren’t so tied to the concept of getting Hockenson touches.
The Dan Johnson Offense: So easy it simply may work.
When we speak about turning corners, it’s vital to notice the offense is the actual purpose why the Lions appear capable of shut groups out. The bulk of the established expertise on this roster lives on offense, in order that solely is sensible.
However, the job Aaron Glenn has accomplished getting himself and his protection off the mat is as spectacular as it’s unsurprising. Those who doubted Glenn’s effectiveness as a coach on this league want solely take a look at how his workforce hoisted him on its shoulders after a win over Green Bay this yr or at how this secondary has flipped itself over the previous month.
I used to be informed this may be a tough workforce to cowl. Doesn’t appear so unhealthy to me
— Colton Pouncy (@colton_pouncy) December 4, 2022
Take these stats gathered by SB Nation’s Jeremy Reisman: Over the final 5 weeks, Glenn’s protection ranks No. 1 in completion charge in opposition to (57.4 %), No. 1 in interceptions pressured (seven), No. 2 in opposing passer score (74.9) and has allowed 6.7 yards yards per try.
Full context is required within the NFL. For Glenn, on this case, it’s layered. The Lions’ win over Jacksonville featured the healthiest defensive depth chart Glenn has had all yr. This week, Detroit might welcome again veteran edge Romeo Okwara for the primary time since he tore an Achilles in September 2021. Jacobs, who made his season debut in Week 7, post-knee harm, has been a lifesaver. Glenn has additionally made modifications.
Detroit fired revered defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant on Halloween, a transfer that shook folks contained in the constructing. Everyone revered Pleasant, and most of the gamers have been very shut with him. However, a method or one other, change was wanted. At that point, the Lions have been permitting greater than 420 yards per recreation. The final 5 weeks: 375.4, together with a season-best 266 final week.
Part of Glenn’s change has been schematic. The Lions have been an all-attack protection by the primary 5 weeks of the season, and it was a large number. There was an excessive amount of one-on-one occurring all around the area, and never sufficient gamers have been prepared for that.
Glenn’s protection nonetheless assaults, after all, solely he’s been choosing his spots higher. The entrance can also be doing much less work downhill and extra studying, which has allowed gamers like Hutchinson, whose six sacks lead all rookies, to make extra performs and given linebackers like Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes extra time to get to ball carriers.
The greatest change, although, hasn’t actually been a change in any respect. It’s been progress. Even when it was taking part in poorly, you can discover one thing Glenn’s protection acquired higher at week to week as a result of the items in it have been so younger. Those “somethings” are all including up now. Glenn has gotten extra youth on the sphere, given them confidence and put them of their greatest roles.
Joseph performs much less within the field now and extra deep security as a result of he’s good at it. The Lions aren’t afraid to ask cornerback Jeff Okudah to assist extra within the field versus the run after they’re in nickel as a result of he’s good at it. Glenn is letting Hutchinson rush extra from a two-point stance than a three-point stance as a result of — you guessed it — he’s good at it.
Glenn’s greatest trait as a coach is his capability to earn buy-in. That is the calling card for Campbell’s complete employees, however no person is best at it than Detroit’s defensive coordinator. A 5-foot-9 (on his greatest day) ex-corner who starred in an period once you had no selection however to play bodily soccer, Glenn coaches together with his coronary heart on his sleeve and provides solely what he calls for: his absolute best.
Like Campbell, Glenn is an previous Texan at coronary heart. But, additionally like Campbell, he’s as Detroit as Detroit will get.
Where’s this all headed? The Lions will host the Vikings (10-2) in a all of the sudden not-meaningless soccer recreation Sunday at Ford Field. Campbell’s workforce remains to be fairly imperfect, the protection could be very younger and there are limitations to this roster, typically.
However, it’s develop into not possible to have a look at this workforce and miss what may very well be within the not-so-distant future. All these first- and second-year gamers are discovering their roles as quick as a workforce might probably ask, and there’s nonetheless extra on the best way from rookie receiver Jameson Williams. Plus, the Lions maintain 5 2023 draft picks within the high 80, together with a Rams first-round choice that presently sits within the high 5. Holmes has sufficient cap room to do one thing notable this summer season.
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Campbell didn’t blink when a reporter requested him after the Jaguars win if he thinks this workforce can compete with anyone. It could be too late for that to matter in 2022, but it surely might carry a whole lot of weight within the not-so-distant future.
Just ask Sewell the identical query: Can this roster grasp with any workforce within the league?
“I believe that, 100 percent,” he mentioned, additionally with out blinking. “Without a doubt.”
(Photo of Malcolm Rodriguez and Aidan Hutchinson: David Reginek / USA Today)