'A small win' for Jeff Okudah can be a big one for the Lions


Make no mistake, Jeff Okudah isn't here for moral victories. He was in no celebratory mood after returning from a torn Achilles with the best game of his career in the Lions' season-opening loss to the Eagles. Asked about the performance of Detroit's defense against one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC, Okudah said, "Not good enough. Not good enough."

"If we’re going to be the team that we want to be," he said, "it’s just not good enough."

The Lions yielded 455 yards on Sunday, third most in the NFL. That included 216 on the ground, third most in the NFL. They had no answers for Philly's offense on either side of halftime, which is where they lost the game. It was 38-35 in the end, but 38-21 entering the fourth. Moral victories count for nothing in the NFL.

"At the end of the day, it’s all about the win," said Okudah. "That’s something that we preach upon. The win is what’s going to change the narrative about the Detroit Lions.”

In the meantime, Okudah can change the narrative about himself. The former No. 3 pick has been called a bust. On social media, he's been called much worse. He's not really driven by proving these critics wrong. In his third NFL season, Okudah would rather prove himself right: He still believes he can be one of the top cornerbacks in the league.

His belief was rattled last season. After being carted off the field in Week 1, a year after battling injuries and ineffectiveness as a rookie, Okudah wasn't sure he'd ever recover. He said he "definitely" wondered if a comeback was in the cards.

"I had moments where I was just trying to figure out what my next move was," he said. "That’s just the reality of my situation last year. So to be here in this moment, it’s not something that I take lightly. I’m taking the opportunity very seriously."

He ran with it on Sunday. Matched up with DeVonta Smith, Okudah blanked one of the best young receivers in the league: four targets, zero catches. Smith caught more than 60 passes for nearly 1,000 yards as a rookie. This was the first time in his career -- maybe the first time in his life -- that he'd been shut out. He never went without a catch over four years at Alabama.

The Eagles mostly picked on Okudah's counterpart Amani Oruwariye, who was overmatched against A.J. Brown (10 catches, 155 yards). Still, Okudah deserves credit. He broke up a third-down pass intended for Smith on Philly's opening drive, which led to a turnover on downs, and blanketed the former 10th overall pick for the rest of the game. And when he had a shot at Brown, Okudah took him down at the line of scrimmage to snuff out a screen.

In his recovery from one of most brutal injuries in sports, Okudah said he's "gotten into the habit of counting small wins." These are not moral victories. These are moments of triumph for a 23-year-old who needs them, like running onto the field in front of a sold-out crowd Sunday less than a year after he couldn't walk to the bathroom.

"It felt like a blessing," Okudah said. "I was telling my family that it felt like everything was coming full circle. Around the same time last year, I was in the car with my aunt crying, just wondering what would be next for me. And now I’m able to walk off the field healthy."

More than that, he's able to remind the world of his talent. Everyone saw what Okudah could do at Ohio State. And when his body betrayed him, they saw what he couldn't do in the NFL. Who knows if his body will ever allow him to be the lockdown corner the Lions once envisioned. Who knows if he'll even stay healthy this season. But after a season-opener to forget, this was one to remember for Jeff Okudah. This was one to start proving himself right.

"I was tasked with matching up with DeVonta Smith and I felt like I held my own against him," Okudah said. "I count that as a small win."

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Nic Antaya / Stringer