In the first two games of the 2021 season, Julian Okwara and Austin Bryant saw limited, if any, playing time.
According to Pro Football Focus, the duo played five snaps combined in the first two weeks.
With changes being made within the organization, such as holding out veteran linebacker Jamie Collins until a trade partner is found, roles opened up for both heading into the Lions’ Week 3 showdown with the Baltimore Ravens.
Okwara and Bryant both saw extended time against the Ravens at outside linebacker. Bryant had his first sack of the season, while Okwara had three quarterback hurries and was Detroit’s highest-graded defender by Pro Football Focus.
The two were key to the team’s overall defensive success. Although Detroit lost, 19-17, on a heartbreaking, NFL-record 66-yard field goal, its defense took a massive step forward. The unit held dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson in check for much of the afternoon.
Now, both Okwara and Bryant are optimistic about the defense heading into Week 4 against the Chicago Bears.
“I think it’s just the guys we have on this defense,” Bryant said. “The personalities, the attitudes, all these guys come to work every day and give it all they got. Not only on the practice field, but at home, in the meeting rooms, on our own. So, it’s been really encouraging to see how hard this group is working to make sure this defense is one of the best in the league.”
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For Okwara, his rookie season was a bit of a wash. As a third-round pick in 2020, he played in just six games while dealing with injuries. Sunday was his first chance of the season to get extended reps, and he worked to make the most of it.
“I mean, it’s obviously been a long time since I was able to get more than a couple of reps on the field,” Okwara said. “So, it was nice to be out there and make some plays. We didn’t have the result we wanted, but it was nice to be out there and get a better feel for the game and just trying to make an impact in any way I can.”
Both players were reeling after conceding a late fourth-and-19 conversion that ultimately set up the game-winning field goal for the Ravens. However, they remained optimistic about getting better and not letting it happen again.
Re-watching the play in the film room, Bryant said he underwent the same emotions as he felt when the play unfolded on the field.
“We’re learning,” Bryant said. “But, it’s the same feeling you have in your gut when you feel it in the stadium, like the air just gets sucked out. It kills momentum. But, in the film room, we’re just trying to correct and get better, so it’s a little bit less emotional rather than being in the moment. Of course we were upset, but hey, we’re men. It’s a tough league.”
Despite the loss, both believe there are brighter days ahead for the defense as a whole.
“We’re still working, trying to improve each day, each week, each practice and it’s coming,” Bryant said. “You can feel momentum building. You can feel it building. So, we’re just gonna keep our heads down, keep grinding, keep working and we’ll be right where we want to be. Right where we want to be.”