The Detroit Lions were struggling through the 2021-22 season and finding consistent play tough, but everything changed with a trip to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10.
Most folks gave the Lions no chance of competing in the game even without Ben Roethlisberger playing, but Detroit surprised and managed to hang tough all afternoon. Offensively, the team rushed for over 200 yards on the day. Defensively, the Lions were opportunistic, finding takeaways and making big plays in critical moments. It was the kind of complete game the team had not played most of the season.
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While the end result was still slightly embarrassing in the form of a 16-16 tie, the Lions had gained major confidence in stepping up and going toe to toe with a veteran team that would eventually do enough to advance to the playoffs. After that game, the Lions were not only more competitive on the field, but better as a team. They would finish 3-5-1, which was respectable considering their 0-8 record they took into the game and the previous bye week.
As it turns out, that week was a turning point for the entire defense as well. Speaking on January 10, cornerback Amani Oruwariye was asked about the future. As he explained, he feels good about things, especially after everything seemed to change during that rainy November road game.
“Sky’s the limit. We just had our last exit meeting with the defense and that’s all we really talked about. Just building on the foundation. We definitely had a culture shift I would think, a least defensively, after the bye week. The Pittsburgh game,” Oruwariye said. “That was the one where we felt the mentality switched. We just had this “lock the gates” mentality where our standard was higher. So we just got to build off that, just keep as many talented guys here, you know how free agency is, and continue building the foundation.”
Oruwariye explained how the defense was given a lock that day with the expression written on it, and that moment came to symbolize the turnaround of the entire program in Detroit. The play during that game as well as after did harken thoughts of a change in mentality for the Lions, and perhaps gave the team something to build on for the future.
Lions Defense Finished 2021 Season Strong
Perhaps the biggest credit to Aaron Glenn as a defensive coordinator is how he refused to give in and allow mediocrity to take hold with his group. It could have been easy for the Lions to pack it in during 2021 given how the team had struggled in a big way, but from Week 10 on, the defense actually improved. Prior to the bye week, the Lions defense had given up 25 points or more in five games. Following the bye, the Lions managed to cut that number to three, going 2-3 in those games. Statistically, the Lions got stingier as the season went on, only allowing 244 passing yards-per game, which was good for 24th in the NFL. They also allowed 135 rushing yards per-game, good for 28th. Perhaps more importantly, the team started generating timely takeaways, such as this interception that sealed Week 18’s win by safety Tracy Walker:
This new mentality helps lay the groundwork for the 2022 season and shows that with some fixes, the Detroit defense could get back where they need to in short order.
Oruwariye Experienced Career Renaissance in 2021
In terms of his own future, the arrow is firmly pointed in the up position for Oruwariye as much as it is the defense as a whole unit. Even though the cornerback was forced to miss the last few weeks of the season with injury, Oruwariye’s impact from this past season is still being felt in terms of the stats that he has put forth.
According to Pro Football Focus, Oruwariye has the fifth-lowest passer rating allowed in single-coverage in the NFL. He is up there with the likes of J.C. Jackson, Jalen Ramsey and Darius Slay, some of the best of the best in the entire NFL with the stat.
A mark of a great corner is how he can fare in single coverage. To this end, Oruwariye is looking like an elite player for the Lions in the future. That could be huge for the team and their ability to keep improving.
If that is indeed the case, nobody will forget the moment the idea of a turnaround became real in 2021.
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