Allen Park — They won’t say it. Nope, not a word.
“Last year doesn’t mean anything,” said defensive end Romeo Okwara, who led the Lions in sacks. “Going into a new year. Starting off fresh.”
Ask a Lions player about the defense’s intriguing potential, about the heightened expectations, about the big-name additions, and you’re likely to get a smirk and a stare.
“It’s an irrelevant thought,” said end Da’Shawn Hand, who made an impact as a rookie. “When you have irrelevant thoughts, you have irrelevant results.”
True enough, when you go 6-10, statistical results are mostly irrelevant. But individual development is always relevant, and in Matt Patricia’s second season as coach, the Lions have the makings of a stout defense, with all the usual disclaimers: Shut up, it’s June! We’ve heard it before! Where are the stars?!
Patricia’s defenses, based on his experience with the Patriots, don’t necessarily require stars. But the Lions actually might have a few. They certainly have their deepest defensive line since Ndamukong Suh was stomping around Ford Field.
Obviously, this is all contingent on tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison and cornerback Darius Slay resolving their contract issues, as both missed the second day of minicamp Wednesday. Each has two years left on his contract, and while GM Bob Quinn has to be financially prudent, he also must be keenly aware of what he has.
In Harrison, Slay and free-agent prize Trey Flowers, he has three legitimate impact guys on defense. Distributing appropriate funds can be tricky, but there are worse problems to have.
This becomes a serious concern only if Harrison and Slay are still out when training camp opens the end of July. Then it could be a test of the “Patriot Way,” because anteing up for veteran players isn’t usually how it’s done. Ask Vince Wolfork, the longtime run-stuffing star let go by the Patriots in 2015 with two years left on his contract. If you’re a Lions fans determined to get peeved at one side, I’d hold off before griping too loudly. Both sides have too much at stake to let this impasse affect the season.
Even during last season’s disaster, the Lions improved dramatically on the defensive front seven, and bolstered it further by adding Flowers, who’s only 25 and led the Patriots with 7 1/2 sacks. After the Lions acquired Harrison from the Giants in October, the run defense rose from 26th in the league to second.
They finished with the No. 10 defense overall, based on total yards, and Harrison was rated the NFL’s best run defender, according to Pro Football Focus. The Lions surrendered only 44 points the last four games, and while it’s easy to be fooled by meaningless contests, the bulk of their bulky defense is back with reinforcements.
In Patricia’s scheme, players perform multiple roles, hence the general absence of superstar numbers. Okwara, plucked off waivers from the Giants just before last season, led the Lions with 7 1/2 sacks. Two linebackers — Devon Kennard (seven sacks) and Jarrad Davis (six) — were next. Seven Lions posted at least 3 1/2 sacks and only two are gone, Ziggy Ansah and Eli Harold.
Two years in
Harrison and Hand are entering their second full seasons in the system. A’Shawn Robinson is in his fourth season. Quinn made a controversial selection of Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai in the second round and added four more defensive picks, including Clemson end Austin Bryant and Arizona tackle P.J. Johnson. In addition to spending $90 million on Flowers, the Lions gave a $36-million free-agent deal to slot cornerback Justin Coleman. And if third-year cornerback Teez Tabor really is making progress — we shall see — that secondary gets a big boost.
A top-10 defense one season doesn’t guarantee a top-10 defense the following season. But while Matthew Stafford and others adjust to a new offense under coordinator Darrell Bevell, the defense had better be the strength, no excuses.
Again, in the absence of glowing words, there’s a quiet confidence it’s getting close to what Quinn envisioned when he hired Patricia.
“I think we’re getting there,” Quinn said after the draft. “I think we did a good job last offseason in free-agency with guys like Kennard and Christian (Jones). Couple drafts ago, we drafted Jarrad Davis for the previous defense, but he’s a really good fit in what we do now. We’re there. I think we’re pretty much to the point where we have good players.”
They’re as close as they’ve been, with most in their primes. Harrison is the oldest at 30 and Slay is only 28.
Ask Patricia or defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni about priorities, and you’ll get a passionate thesis on stopping the run. They eventually stopped it, and while other teams buzz with dynamic offenses, Patricia will stick to what he knows best.
Oh, Bevell and Stafford and Kerryon Johnson will be vitally important in controlling the ball, to help the defense control the game.
That’s the theory, at least. Kennard began to blossom as a pass-rusher with his seven sacks (after tallying 9 1/2 in four seasons with the Giants), and he’s sticking to the script and the plan.
“It’s a new slate, a new opportunity,” Kennard said. “We have an advantage because it’s a defense we’ve been in for a year, that helps. But you can’t assume we’re gonna make a huge jump just because we did it last year.”
We’ve learned to assume nothing. But with this Lions’ defense, you’re entitled to expect something even more.