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Jeff Okudah Is Finally Becoming the Player He Was Always Supposed to Be

The former no. 3 pick had his first two seasons derailed by bad coaching and an Achilles tear. Now in year three, Okudah is showing star power—and transforming the Lions defense.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Building a successful NFL defense has always been hard; in an increasingly offense-heavy league, it feels almost impossible. Short of drafting star players every single season (looking at you, New Orleans Saints), it requires some clever machinations. It’s far easier for an offense to choose to do one thing and do it really well than it is for a defense, which must play and adjust to a variety of offenses across the NFL season.

But defenses still have identities. The Vic Fangio defenses all act a certain way, just as the Bill Belichick defenses act a certain way. Coordinators must decide what they want to do on defense: employ man or zone coverage, blitz or drop into coverage, utilize an odd or even front, etc. Once an identity is determined, the correct players must be acquired and installed into the defense. You can’t run Cover 3 without a ball-hawking free safety (think Earl Thomas). You can’t run a Wide 9 front without an explosive outside pass rusher (think Nick Bosa). The players must fit the scheme, and vice versa.

The Detroit Lions want to be a man coverage machine. Through three weeks of the season, no team is playing more man coverage than Detroit. The Lions also want to be a blitzing team. Through three weeks of the season, only two teams are sending five-plus rushers more often than Detroit. There is no subterfuge here, no concealing defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn’s total disdain for opposing offenses and their quarterbacks, wide receivers, and coordinators. We are going to play man and send pressure, the Lions defense is telling its opponents. Good luck.

Well, the players must fit the scheme—and if you’re playing a ton of man coverage, you better have really good cornerbacks. Detroit is a young team that’s still growing, but they seem to have found a true star in third-year cornerback Jeff Okudah.

Before we look at what the Lions are doing this year with Okudah, let’s look at what they did last year without him. 2021 was the first season for the Lions under Glenn, who had long served as the secondary coach in New Orleans under Dennis Allen before taking the defensive coordinator role in Detroit. Glenn found in Detroit a bare cupboard. Former head coach Matt Patricia had loaded the roster with the tentpoles of the Patriots’ defensive philosophy. Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins, and Duron Harmon were meant to bring the Patriot Way to Detroit. Early draft picks like Jarrad Davis, Jahlani Tavai, and Will Harris were meant to help. None of it worked, and as the Lions struggled, a talent exodus began. Darius Slay, A’Shawn Robinson, and Ziggy Ansah all left. There was precious little to work with for Glenn—even less when injuries struck. Rookie corner Ifeatu Melifonwu went down. So did defensive end Romeo Okwara. And so did Okudah.

So Glenn tried to make lemonade out of the lemons Patricia left him. The Lions were playing man on 25.1 percent of dropbacks, which was just below league average, and sending five-plus rushers on 26.4 percent of dropbacks, which was just over league average. And in these contexts, they were not good. When they played man coverage, they gave up 8.04 yards per passing attempt, fifth worst in the league. When they brought more than four rushers, they gave up 7.37 yards per passing attempt, which was 20th in the league.

In 2022, the Lions have become what Glenn wants them to be on defense. They’ve defined their identity and thrived in it.

Lions Defensive Stats

Stat 2021 % 2021 Rank 2022 % 2022 Rank
Stat 2021 % 2021 Rank 2022 % 2022 Rank
Man Coverage Rate 25.1% 21st 43.6% 1st
Man Coverage Y/A allowed 8.04 28th 6.79 18th
Blitz Rate 26.4% 13th 38.4% 3rd
Blitz Y/A allowed 7.37 20th 4.53 3rd

The Lions defense is far from complete, but their man coverage and blitz rates have jumped not just because that’s what Glenn wants to do—but because they are finally capable of doing it. There are plenty of reasons for that. The cupboards were starting to become stocked for Glenn with free agents and developing youngsters—DeShon Elliott, Aidan Hutchinson, Alex Anzalone, Malcolm Rodriguez—but at outside cornerback, there was still a gaping hole opposite Amani Oruwariye. Free agent Mike Hughes was going to fight for the role. Safety-to-corner convert Will Harris was going to fight for the role. And so was Okudah.

Okudah won the job in camp—it wasn’t handed to him. He was shaky as a rookie for Patricia, and missed the entire 2021 season with an Achilles injury, from which plenty of quick-twitch players have never recovered. But at camp, Okudah looked great. In the preseason, Okudah again looked great. The Lions started him in Week 1 against the Eagles, but even still, kept their optimism cautious. They rotated Will Harris in for Okudah during the second quarter; Harris gave up a big catch, they got Okudah back out there, and they haven’t rotated him out since. In Week 3, for the first time since Week 2 of his rookie season, Okudah played 100 percent of the Lions’ defensive snaps. In Week 1, he was shadowing DeVonta Smith, the Eagles’ second-best receiver, while Oruwariye took A.J. Brown, the Eagles’ best. By Week 3, it wasn’t Oruwariye shadowing Justin Jefferson, the Vikings star and arguably the most talented receiver in the NFL. It was Okudah.

Okudah hasn’t just won a starting job for the Lions. He has become one of the team’s tentpoles. The Lions want to play man coverage, and they want to blitz. You can’t do that without cornerbacks who can travel with opposing receivers and play man coverage without help, as the help has already been sent on a blitz. Through three weeks of the season, Okudah has been the best and most important player on the Lions defense.

Okudah’s rise shows how tentpole players affect everything around them—the scheme and the other players within it. With Okudah over WR1s, Oruwariye can now play over WR2s—an easier task for a good but not elite press man corner. Now Hughes can play the slot, where his lack of size won’t be as easily attacked. And when Jerry Jacobs comes back from injury, the cornerback room will have depth and versatility. Now the Lions can continue to play tons of man coverage exactly the way they want to.

Okudah’s rounding out of the Lions’ man coverage corps also gives Detroit schematic flexibility. The Lions are a man coverage team, but playing man coverage against a player of Jefferson’s caliber is always difficult, no matter how good of a corner Okudah becomes. But when a defense feels comfortable with Oruwariye on Adam Thielen and Hughes on K.J. Osborn, suddenly they can start affording extra help to Okudah in his matchup with Jefferson. Multiple times on Sunday against the Vikings, the Lions called man coverage with an extra set of eyes on Jefferson, and they got to that double in a variety of ways.

Here’s a rep of true “1 Double 18”—Cover 1 across the board, with an additional player (Elliott, the strong safety) in man coverage on Jefferson (no. 18, hence the call) at the snap. With Elliott inside and on top of Jefferson and Okudah outside and underneath Jefferson, there’s no route Jefferson can run that won’t go into the lap of a waiting Detroit defender.

This is an extreme measure. Generally, the Lions were more subtle with their help in defending Jefferson. A few times, the Lions played Cover 2 to the Jefferson side of the formation. This allowed Okudah to play Jefferson in the trail (underneath, with his eyes on Jefferson and his back to the football). With the deep safety floating over top of Jefferson and capping any deep vertical routes, Okudah receives a few benefits. He can press Jefferson at the line, disrupting his release and his timing, without concern of being beaten off the ball. He can then play with his eyes on Jefferson’s hips, anticipating and undercutting any potential breaking routes to the middle of the field, which is where Jefferson does most of his damage.

Because Jefferson runs so many in-breaking routes, the Lions often ran Cover 1 with a low hole or robber safety stepping to Jefferson’s side of the field. This left Okudah in man coverage on Jefferson without any true vertical help, like he had with the Cover 2 safety over the top—but it did give Okudah help to quick in-breaking routes, which let Okudah cheat to the outside shoulder of Jefferson, knowing that any route breaking away from him would break to the robbing safety.

These calls are placed in decreasing order by the amount of help they offer Okudah. On a “1 Double 18” call, the entire defensive scheme revolves around stopping the offense’s no. 1 receiver, in this case Jefferson. On the next calls, the Lions are hoping to anticipate which routes Jefferson runs from which alignments, and finding ways to stop those routes via alignment. But at the end of the day, Detroit still needs the corner on Jefferson to win in order to play man coverage against the Vikings.

That’s what Okudah was able to do—not just against Jefferson, but against Terry McLaurin in Week 2 and DeVonta Smith in Week 1. Those three receivers totaled seven receptions and 89 yards against the Lions. Okudah himself has surrendered just one catch of more than 11 yards.

Up at the line of scrimmage, Okudah has unlocked the value of his length and quickness, and regularly jams up receivers before they get off the line, making timing routes difficult and discouraging quarterbacks from even challenging his coverage with a target. We can see how that affected Jefferson here, on a third down rep with no schemed safety help, in which Okudah never loses his connection to Jefferson and makes him late to break on the route back to the quarterback.

Playing press man is a feast-or-famine proposition, but Okudah has the recovery athleticism necessary to survive at the spot. When Okudah loses at the line, his ability to get back on his horse and regain positioning on the receiver means he still challenges quarterbacks to throw accurate footballs and for receivers to make catches through contact. Watch Okudah get uprooted from the ground on this release, yet still somehow explode back into phase with Jefferson and regain positioning on an inaccurate throw. This isn’t credited as a pass breakup, but it’s an incredible play in terms of recovery athleticism.

A wonderful comparison for this play was brought to my attention from Okudah’s rookie year. The routes are slightly different, but Okudah’s confidence and speed of play are drastically different.

Okudah’s length and explosiveness are difficult to overstate. At times, he snuffs out a play the moment the ball is snapped; at other times, he loses, like all cornerbacks do, but he is able to get back into every play and make quick tackles or harass the catch point. The only thing left missing from Okudah’s toolbox as one of the league’s preeminent man cover corners is recognition, instincts, and football intelligence—the result of experience. This is something Okudah himself has acknowledged. “Honestly, being in my third year, I don’t have that many physical reps,” Okudah said following the Week 2 win against the Commanders. “So, I have to make up for it on the mental side. I don’t have the luxury of not embracing that part of the game because I’ve gotta catch up mentally in certain aspects.” Glenn said that Okudah’s “habits as far as becoming a pro has really improved” and that he’s “leaned on Amani, me, AP [Aubrey Pleasant], Brian [Duker] as far as tips.”

But that’s the great news for Detroit: Okudah looks like this without the physical reps, without the conditioned instincts of experience. Okudah is very much still a rookie—a third-year player, yes, but a physically gifted, inexperienced player who has finally learned the hard lessons of NFL speed and physicality. He is just now starting to trust a scheme—a scheme he has barely played in, given his absence last season. He is just now starting to trust his technique—technique he had to be retaught following the debacle of his rookie-year tutelage under Patricia. It’s been a long road, but Okudah looks exactly like you’d expect and hope the third overall pick might look—like a rising star with the physical tools to dominate for years.

Let’s fast-forward a few more weeks. If Okudah locks up Seahawks star DK Metcalf this upcoming Sunday, DeVante Parker (?!) the following Sunday against the Patriots, and CeeDee Lamb against the Cowboys, Glenn can gameplan around Okudah on a weekly basis, confident that his play is a sure thing. He can leave him on that island and feel safe. Those additional resources that helped him against Jefferson can go to other cornerbacks, other coverage shells, new blitz packages. The Okudah tentpole becomes stronger.

Let’s fast-forward a few more months. If Okudah is exactly what these few weeks of great play foretell, he’ll become one of the league’s best man coverage players. The Lions have plenty of cap space and draft picks to play with, and now, they have one less premium position to fill. Want a star edge rusher to play opposite Hutchinson? That’s available to them. Maybe get a true three-down linebacker to plug the weakest part of their defense. Or continue riding with the youth and use all of those resources at quarterback, the last weak link on a strong Lions offense. Don’t worry about the defense. The Okudah tentpole is holding it up.

The Lions entered the season as a plucky team that was fun to watch on Hard Knocks. They’re now 1-2, but with one-score losses against the Eagles and the Vikings, they deserve mention as a legitimate wild-card team. Nobody will mistake them for a Super Bowl contender in 2022, but nobody should mistake why they’re a potential playoff team, either. It’s because of the coaching staff. It’s because of the offensive line. It’s because of Amon-Ra St. Brown and D’Andre Swift. But it’s also because of Jeff Okudah, who is finally and fully back to what he was always supposed to be.