The Detroit Lions play plenty of man defense, and it’s a staple of the Matt Patricia way of thinking brought from the successful New England Patriots. The problem? Detroit’s defense has been miserable under Patricia.
Finding an explanation for these anomalies has not been easy to do, but analyst Doug Farrar from Touchdown Wire has taken perhaps the best possible step in explaining why the Lions continue to struggle in their scheme while it works in New England. As Farrar said, it’s a matter of personnel in Detroit, even as the Lions have tried to take steps to improve their roster in recent years.
“So… why are the Lions so bad at man coverage, and why do they insist on doing it more than any other team? Personnel is a big part of it. If your secondary personnel isn’t matched to your schematic concepts, you’re going to get eaten alive — even if the opposing quarterback is Mitchell Trubisky. Before the 2019 season, the Lions signed former Seahawks slot defender Justin Coleman to a four-year, $36 million contract, making Coleman the highest-paid slot defender in NFL history. But Coleman had excelled in Seattle’s zone-based defense, and he wasn’t used to playing man as much as the Lions asked him to. The numbers played out as you might predict: Coleman allowed five touchdowns to just one interception in man and combo coverage last season,
Patricia, on the other hand, seems to have made the worst mistake a game-planner can possibly make: He’s subscribed to the idea that no matter what kinds of players he has on his roster, he’s going to run what he runs, and to heck with reality.”
In Farrar’s mind, the Lions still don’t have the right kind of personnel to be able to run the type of man defense that has become Patricia’s bread and butter during his time in the league. As he admits, the Lions do have Jeff Okudah on the roster perhaps coming to help aid in this, but the team still doesn’t have the types of players to run their scheme successfully. Worse, they don’t have the commitment of the coaching staff to switch things up when their stated plan doesn’t work.
Detroit’s had some tough injuries at cornerback to start the season which has prevented them from feeling completely comfortable, but if Patricia continues to struggle on defense and the year spirals out of control, it will be bad news for the former super genius coordinator turned head coach.
So far, Patricia’s plan to win in Detroit with man defense hasn’t turned out well whatsoever, and he hasn’t been able to adapt otherwise. That could prove bad news for his long term plans of sticking around if things don’t change.
Cory Undlin ‘Confident’ in Lions Defense
Regardless of all the swirling questions, defensive coordinator Cory Undlin has plenty of confidence in the defense this season. Undlin has been working hard with the team’s defense all offseason and says that he has faith things are heading in the right direction for the season.
New Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin: "I have nothing but confidence this defense is going to help us win." pic.twitter.com/5fFeQmCNSK
— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) September 9, 2020
“I have nothing but confidence that this defense is going to help this team win. That’s yet to be seem but from the spring, from my first day in this building, as I got introduced to some of the players and met them now that we’ve been back in training camp, . I love this group of men and I wouldn’t want anyone else in this building right now. I feel really good about the roster that’s been put together and I wouldn’t want anyone else on this team right now.”
Detroit’s defense was a liability instead of an asset much of the 2019 season, and did little to help out a struggling offense. This year, the thinking is that if the defense meets the offense halfway, the Lions could be in sneaky good shape to do some damage this year on the field. Still, nobody knows how good the team’s defense will be after subtracting its best player in Darius Slay and losing a top sack man in Devon Kennard.
Don’t count Undlin as someone worrying about the group at this point. In fact, he seems to be confident that the Lions will be much better. Soon, the world will find out if he is right.
Lions Defense Said to Have Not Improved
Bleacher Report may have seen these struggles coming a long way off. This offseason, the site power ranked every team’s defense following the biggest moves of the offseason, and the Lions didn’t place highly whatsoever. Detroit’s defense was bad last season, but according to Martin Fenn, the improvements they have made have been minimal.
The Lions placed 29th on the list, with only 3 defenses in the league worse at this point.
Here’s a look at what Fenn wrote about why:
“The Lions made the best decision for their defense by staying at the No. 3 spot in the draft and selecting Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, who was dominant during his tenure with the Buckeyes. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed first downs on just 20 percent of all targets at the outside corner since 2018. He also dominated in press coverage, making him the perfect replacement for Darius Slay.
Detroit also signed former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant earlier in the offseason while acquiring ball-hawking safety Duron Harmon from the New England Patriots.
The problem is, the secondary figures to see a ton of action due to a relatively lackluster pass rush. The Lions cut edge-rusher Devon Kennard and defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison, but the only move they made to upgrade the line was signing former Pats defensive tackle Danny Shelton.
Shelton was a run-stuffing machine for New England last year, and perhaps the Lions are counting on the additions of linebackers Jamie Collins and Reggie Ragland to help against the run as well. Still, they don’t have much of a pass rush outside of Trey Flowers, which does not bode well for the overhauled secondary. Collins did have seven sacks last season, but he will be 31 in October, and the Lions might need him to be more of a cover backer.
Third-round draft pick Julian Okwara might be able to help set the edge, but the Lions ranked 29th in passing DVOA last year, and the relative shortage of pass-rushing threats will test Detroit’s secondary once again.”
Detroit has added plenty to the mix in both free agency and the draft but clearly not enough to move the needle as Fenn is concerned in terms of a turnaround. Obviously, the Lions need to prove such rankings lists wrong considering how important 2020 is for everyone on the team.
They might not be off to the best start at doing so thanks to their scheme itself.