Allen Park — It’s easy to point to the Detroit Lions offensive line as the roster’s strength, but when asked about his team’s positions of need for the upcoming offseason, general manager Brad Holmes casually slipped in he carries a similar view about the defensive trench.
“I would agree, yes, offensive line,” Holmes said. “You could say defensive line, you could argue that those are strengths of our team, but we do want to improve in all the other areas.
A former collegiate defensive tackle, Holmes has an intimate understanding about the position, but the evaluation doesn’t seem congruent with the results.
While it can be difficult to decipher the intricacies of defensive interior performance, we have the obvious barometers of quarterback pressures, tackles for loss and yards per carry up the middle.
In terms of interior pass rush, Detroit carried over its struggles from the previous regime, despite overhauling the position group. Nick Williams, an impending free agent, led the team’s interior linemen with 15 quarterback pressures, followed by rookie Alim McNeill with 10. They were the only two who ranked inside the top 100 in the category at the position.
In fact, 18 individual players generated more quarterback pressure than all of Detroit’s interior linemen combined. The group’s 18 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks also lagged woefully behind league-average production.
As for run-stopping, opponents averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 124 rushes up the middle, which ranked 30th in the NFL.
It’s unclear whether Holmes views the teams edge rushers, listed as outside linebackers within the scheme, as part of the defensive line. But that also continues to be an area of weakness for Detroit.
While there’s no denying Charles Harris’ breakout campaign, with 52 total pressures and 7.5 sacks, the Lions simply didn’t get enough production off the edge, playing a significant role in Detroit finishing 30th in sacks in 2021. Additionally, Harris also is a pending free agent, meaning his return is not assured.
The remaining interpretation of Holmes’ positive outlook for his defensive front must be rooted in the group’s potential. The team leaned heavily on youth in 2021, with rookie defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike and McNeill combining for more than 800 snaps and second-year nose tackle John Penisini chipping in another 276.
On the edge, Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant, who had combined for a little more than 400 snaps of experience coming into the year, nearly doubled that in 2021 and were responsible for a third for Detroit’s sack production.
And, as Holmes noted, the team will be looking to upgrade everywhere this offseason, with the current expectation being the team adds an edge rusher at the top of the upcoming draft.