To force more turnovers, Detroit Lions want to 'keep it cloudy' for opposing QBs in 2021

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The best cornerback new Detroit Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant has been around isn't a cornerback at all.

"I joke and tell people that the greatest corner I’ve ever played with is Aaron Donald," Pleasant said of the Los Angeles Rams future Hall of Fame defensive tackle. "In order to be a successful football team, things have to marry and they have to collaborate. And I think the pass rush, as well as the ability to play sticky coverage no matter what your philosophy is, I think they go hand in hand and I think when those things work together, it makes it very difficult for opposing offense."

The Lions have not had much of a pass rush in recent years, and they haven't had much of a secondary, either.

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Which one is the chicken and which is the egg is up for debate, but Pleasant is doing his part this spring to fix a Lions defense that finished last in the league in points allowed, yards allowed and yards per pass play in 2020.

Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah celebrates after tackling Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins during the first quarter of the Lions' 26-23 win on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz.
Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah celebrates after tackling Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins during the first quarter of the Lions' 26-23 win on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz.

As defensive pass game coordinator, Pleasant, a Flint native who spent the past four seasons as Rams cornerbacks coach, will play an enhanced role in game-planning for the Lions.

He said he left a plum job with the Rams, where he had one of the best secondaries in the league on a Super Bowl-contending team, in part because his new job offered "more than just the opportunity to coach."

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"I’m also bringing a defensive philosophy, one that talks about coverage philosophy, intent, disguise," he said. "As a defensive backs coach in the NFL, the way the game is being played now, you can look at having almost seven guys on the field and I think that’s what that title really means. It’s just really bringing a little bit of the philosophies that I’ve been able to learn over my past experiences in the NFL and trying to combine those and marrying them with (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn’s vision and Coach Dan Campbell’s vision for the defense."

A star defensive back at Flint Montrose who played collegiately at Wisconsin and coached at Michigan, Pleasant said his philosophy was shaped in part from time he spent as an offensive assistant in Washington in his first job in the NFL.

There, he worked on a staff with two young assistants now considered among the NFL's best play callers: San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Rams coach Sean McVay.

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"The one thing that it really taught me was that in order to be successful in this league, you have to keep it cloudy for the quarterback," Pleasant said. "And I think sometimes as coaches, we get so caught up in what we’re teaching or what we’re asking our guys and we forget that we’re actually playing against a quarterback and offensive coordinator on the other side of the field. And I think that’s something that’s very important to me. That means no matter if it’s disguise, intent, showing him what he thinks it is and giving him the opposite or vice versa, that is something that’s very important in the pass game."

The Lions, like most NFL teams, have played an array of coverages out of different looks in the past. Still, they rank last in the NFL in interceptions over the past two seasons, and gave up a league-worst 112.4 passer rating in 2020.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski catches a pass for a touchdown against Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker during the first quarter at Ford Field, Dec. 26, 2020.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski catches a pass for a touchdown against Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker during the first quarter at Ford Field, Dec. 26, 2020.

For that to change this fall, the Lions will need better play from all levels of their defense.

They are moving to a base 3-4 defense full-time this fall, with top ends Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers ticketed for snaps at outside linebacker.

New additions Michael Brockers — Donald's sidekick in L.A. the past seven seasons — and rookie Levi Onwuzurike should help the interior pass rush.

And the Lions have high hopes for a young secondary that returns last year's No. 3 overall pick, Jeff Okudah, plus third-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye and fourth-year safety Tracy Walker.

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Okudah had a rocky rookie season, allowing completions on 41 of the 53 passes thrown against him (77.4%), according to Pro Football Reference. He missed one game with a hamstring injury and six more with a groin injury that required surgery, but Pleasant said if Okudah "can focus on the small things" this fall, "I think you can see some of the production that he was able to have his last year at Ohio State."

"When I went through the process of actually looking at this job, I took a look at the roster and I didn’t play attention to statistics or wins or losses, but I saw a group of very young, talented players that had a high ceiling and ability to improve and kind of move forward," Pleasant said. "That’s just what I feel with this group. We have a lot of different guys that have different skill sets. I think they’re all very versatile and I look forward to working with all of them."

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions want to 'keep it cloudy' for opposing QBs in 2021