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Niyo: NFL-worst run defense is Lions’ No. 1 problem

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Ezekiel Elliott blasted the Lions defense for 152 yards rushing.

Allen Park — Glover Quin diagnosed the problem well before the Dallas Cowboys exploited it Sunday.

“Right now, I mean, they don’t have to throw the ball,” he said of the Lions’ opponents this season. “They’ve been running it on us.”

And so long as they keep doing that, as Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys did again Sunday at AT&T Stadium, piling up 183 yards on the ground to cement the Lions’ status as the NFL’s worst rushing defense to date, all those other issues are going to take a backseat.

The slow starts that lead to frantic finishes. The offensive play-calling and the red-zone inefficiency. The curious snap counts and the maddening penalty problems. Even the questions about clock management don’t seem all that timely or relevant when the analysis is this easy.

If you can’t stop the run, there’s no hiding from it. And at the moment, the Lions rank 32nd in the league against the run, allowing an average of 157.8 yards per game — and an ugly 5.3 yards per carry — which is about all you need to know to understand a 1-3 start to the Matt Patricia era.

More: Bottom line: 1-3 record hangs over Patricia’s coaching debut

More: Four Downs: Lions wasting Kerryon Johnson's talent

Until that gets fixed, and Patricia’s team actually finds a way to force an opponent’s hand, the Lions will just keep chasing their tail, pinning their hopes on Matthew Stafford’s ability to lead fourth-quarter comebacks.

Indeed, lost in all the debate over rookie Kerryon Johnson’s role in the offense is the fact the Lions barely had the football Sunday. The Cowboys held a more than 2-to-1 edge in time of possession after halftime, running 42 plays that chewed up 20:36 of the clock and produced 17 first downs.

Look, there was a reason Patricia was preaching patience before the regular season kicked off. And it wasn’t simply what he’d learned in 14 seasons working for Bill Belichick, including last fall when the Patriots’ defense — his defense — also was a mess a month into the season. (New England allowed an average of 32 points and a whopping 7.2 yards per play through four games in 2017.)

No, it was more than that. It was what he’d seen through four preseason games as the Lions’ newly-assembled defense looked like it was missing more than a few parts.

“September’s going to look one way and October’s going to look another,” Patricia said then, “and hopefully November looks better than both of them.”

Well, it’s October now. And that’s still the hope, as fleeting as it might seem as they get ready to face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers before heading into their bye week.

“Obviously, we haven’t done our jobs at a high level,” veteran safety Tavon Wilson said Monday. “It’s not just the run game. It’s a lot of things that aren’t going well. It’s all three levels of the defense where we’ve got to do things better if we think we’re gonna win games.”

Thinking and doing are two different things, especially at this level, which is why Patricia keeps harping on fundamentals and technique.

But if the Lions were still doing too much thinking initially as they adjusted to Patricia’s new defense — shifting to more of a two-gap scheme, with all the fits and starts that typically entails — those excuses no longer should suffice. And the Lions know it, whether it’s a whiff and a miss as Elliott breaks off a 41-yard run to begin a touchdown drive, or a 2-minute drill that ends a game.

“Obviously, whenever you take the field, you think you can get a stop,” Wilson said. “No one goes out there and says, ‘Let’s go give up this touchdown.’ ... We go out there to make stops. That’s our job.”

To the extent they don’t, or can’t, well, that’s not just on the players. That’s on the head coach and his hand-picked defensive staff, from Paul Pasqualoni on down. And it’s on general manager Bob Quinn, who in many respects, had two years to prep this roster for Patricia’s arrival. To smooth the transition he likely knew was coming.

Back in March, Quinn sounded convinced that the porous run defense we saw the final two-thirds of last season — after Haloti Ngata was lost to injury — was a thing of the past. He said this defense would be more physical, more disciplined and, he added, “I think we’re going to be better against the run.”

So far, not so good. And asked to assess where things stand after this latest loss, linebacker Eli Harold, whose pre-snap penalty proved costly in the fourth quarter, didn’t hesitate.

“We just have to find out what is killing us in the running game, obviously,” he said, “and just go from there.”

There are some encouraging signs, if you squint hard enough. The play of rookie fourth-round pick Da’Shawn Hand has been a bright spot. Even defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, who was inactive for the opener, has seen his role grow the past couple games into more of what we expected it’d be this offseason. He started Sunday for the second straight week and finished with nine tackles in 36 snaps against the Cowboys.

But in the absence of Ezekiel Ansah, out since the opener because of a shoulder injury, the Lions don’t appear to have what it takes to get the job done up front. Which in turn creates more problems for Jarrad Davis and others trying to fill in the gaps in the middle of this defense. So unless and until that changes, they all understand the problem.

“Everyone is going to run the same thing,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said.

They just don’t know how to solve it.

Coming through!

The Lions are last in the NFL in rush defense, giving up 157.8 yards per game. Here are the five worst teams:

32. Detroit: 631 yards (157.8 average)

31. Arizona: 565 (141.3)

30. Oakland: 557 (139.3)

29. N.Y. Giants: 504 (126.0)

28. Seattle: 490 (122.5)

Twitter: @JohnNiyo