Lions scouting report: Defensive backfield a weak link
GREEN BAY – In two of the past three games the Green Bay Packers have shredded the elite defensive backfields of the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks.
In those two games, the Packers scored 76 points, Aaron Rodgers posted passer ratings of 136.6 and 150.8 and Jordy Nelson caught four touchdown passes.
When the Packers play the Detroit Lions on Sunday night at Ford Field, the Lions will be missing not only their nickel back but also probably their top cornerback at a position that wasn’t strong even at the start of the season. How the Lions handle their deficiencies in back-end personnel could well decide the NFC North Division championship game.
“They’re beat up,” an executive in personnel said. “When they lost (Darius) Slay it dropped off in a hurry. I’ll give them credit. That coaching staff is something. They’re doing a heck of a job with that defense.”
Slay, possibly the best cornerback in the division, aggravated a hamstring injury Dec. 18 against the Giants and was listed as doubtful for the 42-21 loss Monday night in Dallas. He sat out three weeks at mid-season with an injury to the same hamstring.
Given that the Lions, a 3 1/2-point underdog, are one win away from their first division title in 23 years, it’s possible Slay might give it a go.
“Hamstring for a corner, that’s rough,” one scout said. “If I’m the offensive coordinator I’m going to go, ‘OK, you got a hamstring? Let’s run three straight 9-routes (takeoffs).’ Just watch him then.”
Nevin Lawson (5-9½, 192 pounds), a starter since mid-2015, assumes the mantle as No. 1. The other starter would be Johnson Bademosi (6-0½, 206), who was signed as an unrestricted free agent from Cleveland in March for $4.5 million over two years.
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Bademosi, an excellent special-teams player, played only in the kicking game against Green Bay on Sept. 25 in the Lions’ 34-27 defeat. He played merely 196 snaps on defense in 62 games as a Brown from 2012-’15.
“He’s big and can run (4.45) straight-line, but he lacks instincts and struggles playing the ball,” said one scout. “He was a good special-teamer because he’s also tough. He’s just being pressed into a position he’s proven over time he’s not good enough to do.”
Quandre Diggs, basically the slot cornerback since mid-2015, suffered a season-ending chest injury Dec. 4. Asa Jackson (5-10, 183), the Ravens’ fifth-round draft choice in 2012, was signed off Baltimore’s practice squad two days later and is now the slot.
Jackson, who has been with five teams, played 332 defensive snaps from 2012-’15. He has short arms (29 1/8 inches) and 4.49 speed.
“He’s a journeyman,” said one scout. “He’s short. Got good quickness. Tight in the hips. They’re real small on the corners. I’m sure that’s why Bademosi is out there. They must feel they have to have somebody with some size. Diggs wasn’t great but he was tough and made plays.”
Dallas’ Dak Prescott compiled a passer rating of 148.3 as Dez Bryant and others took advantage of matchups.
“Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb if he plays, those are positive matchups,” one scout said. “And you’ve got a quarterback who can exploit those things. I just think the clock’s going to strike 12 on Detroit.
“They’ve got Asa Jackson, who’s off the street, playing nickel. Nevin Lawson is a fourth or fifth (corner), at best. Bademosi is really a safety. Slay with a hamstring. Whew.”
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Until Monday night Detroit hadn’t allowed more than 20 points since Game 6. The fact the Lions rank 13th in points (21.8) and 15th in yards (348.5) is a tribute to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and his veteran staff, but they have just 14 takeaways (28th).
“To me, that speaks of lack of corners,” one scout said. “Even Slay, they’re not ballhawks. They also don’t have guys at linebackers that can create turnovers. They’re solid at rush end but they don’t have many sacks (25).
“You look at them. (Matthew) Stafford is the whole thing. No running game. Average offensive line. Mediocre skill (players). Yet, they’re 9-6 with all these fourth-quarter comebacks (a record eight) that sit on his shoulders. That’s a heck of a coaching job there.”
According to Sportradar, Slay leads the Lions in “ballhawks” (interceptions, forced fumbles, passes defensed, sacks) with 17 followed by Lawson (eight), free safety Glover Quin (seven), Bademosi (six) and dime safety Rafael Bush (six).
Key injury: Stafford kept playing despite suffering a dislocation and torn ligaments in the middle finger of his passing hand Dec. 11 against the Bears. A 65.5% passer for the season (he has played all 971 snaps), he completed only 56.5% against the Cowboys and 61.5% against the Giants.
Stafford wears a glove with a splint protecting the damaged finger and the other fingers on the glove cut off.
“He hasn’t been throwing the ball as well,” said one personnel man. “Obviously, I think the hand is bothering him somewhat. His ball never used to have a wobble. They were always tight. Not now.”
Stafford ranked third in the NFL through Week 7 with a passer rating of 105.7. He’s now 13th at 93.1 after posting an 83.4 rating in Games 8-15. His 207 yards rushing are a career-best.
“He looks like he’s in so much better shape and more agile and quick,” one scout said. “He can get out of things and extend plays. It’s an added bonus to him.”
Stafford’s ninth interception of the season came in the third quarter against Dallas.
“The one pick was terrible,” one scout said. “Running to his left, flicks it, late downfield. That was the old Stafford that always held him back, which he hadn’t done earlier in the year. I just think it was the cumulative effect of ‘I’ve got to win every game with a gloved right hand.’ ”
On the rebound: Linebacker DeAndre Levy, a terrific player in 2013-’14, started and played 33 snaps against Dallas. He returned as a backup in Game 13 after sitting out 11 games with a thigh injury.
Last year, the Milwaukee Vincent product missed all but 17 snaps because of a hip injury.
“He’s back playing again but he doesn’t look the same to me as he did in previous years,” said one personnel man. “I think he’s lost some explosiveness and power. He’s not making as many plays. He looks lighter. It’s hard to tell with pads on but he looks 218, 220.”
Levy (6-2), a third-round pick from Wisconsin in 2009, is listed at 234 pounds.
On the outside: Wide receiver Marvin Jones lit up the Packers in Week 3 for six catches, 205 yards and two touchdowns. He left Green Bay with 18 receptions for 408 yards (22.7) overall.
In 11 games since Jones (6-2, 198) has been limited to 32 catches for 446 (13.9). He doesn’t have a TD since Game 6. One scout said Jones’ inability to escape press coverage has hurt him.
“It’s the body type, it’s strength,” he said. “He runs good routes and gets separation.”
The Lions are the fifth team in NFL history to have five players with at least 50 receptions. They are Golden Tate (85), Anquan Boldin (63), Eric Ebron (55), Theo Riddick (53) and Jones (50).
According to Sportradar, the 36-year-old Boldin has dropped just two passes. Jones leads with eight, Tate has six and Ebron and Riddick each have four.
Riddick, the leading rusher with only 357 yards (3.9), has missed three games with a wrist injury. Listed as doubtful for the Dallas game, he remains iffy for Sunday.
Rookie Dwayne Washington, a seventh-round draft choice, carried 30 times for just 95 yards (3.2) in Games 13-14 before rookie Zach Zenner (5-11½, 221, 4.54), a free agent from South Dakota State, carried 12 times for 67 in Dallas compared to Washington’s 7-22.
“Straight-line, kind of stiff but a tough guy,” one scout said, referring to Zenner. “Not much creativity or pick and slide. He gets what’s there.”
In the lineup: Defensive end Ziggy Ansah suffered a high-ankle sprain Sept. 18 and missed Games 3-5, which included Green Bay. The injury could require surgery after the season.
According to Sportradar, Kerry Hyder leads the Lions in pressures with 33 followed by Ansah (31), Devin Taylor (20), Haloti Ngata (12) and Tyrunn Walker (six). Ansah leads the team in pressures per snap with one every 14.4.
“I think Everson (Griffen) is more complete but they’re in the same category of pass rushers,” said one scout. “He’s kind of an arc rusher but he’s a good player. He’s a borderline elite player when he’s right.”
Line moves: Center Travis Swanson, a two-year starter, has been in concussion protocol since Game 12 and isn’t expected to play.
Rookie Graham Glasgow (6-6, 308), a third-round pick, beat out Laken Tomlinson and started Games 6-12 at left guard. When Swanson got hurt, Glasgow moved to the position he played at Michigan and Tomlinson was reinstated.
“He’s stronger and more stout than Swanson but not as athletic,” one scout said of Glasgow. “He’s held up OK.”
Tomlinson, a first-round choice in 2015, remains the weak link of the unit. Rookie Joe Dahl, a fifth-round pick, saw his first action (11 snaps) against Dallas in relief of Tomlinson.