This is the second in a two-part series looking at the Lions heading into training camp. Today, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News looks at the defense. On Monday, he took a look at the offense.
Allen Park — As New England’s defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia often was expected to do more with less. The Patriots regularly spent less on that side of the ball, relying heavily on bargain-priced free agents and young players, while maintaining the organization’s annual expectation to compete with Super Bowls.
In Detroit, Patricia inherits a defense with a strong foundation of Pro Bowl-caliber talent at key spots, plus young, high-ceiling talent at multiple other positions. Entering his first training camp as the Lions coach, the question becomes, how quickly can the unit make the transition from the attacking 4-3 defense it has run the past several years to a gap-control multiple front that will lean heavily on 3-4 schematic concepts.
Some teams make the transition quickly. Look no further than last year’s Los Angeles Rams, who moved seamlessly from Greg Williams’ attack 4-3 to Wade Phillips’ version of the 3-4, allowing four few points per game year to year.
The Lions have the pieces in place to make a similarly rapid conversion.
It starts up front. As general manager Bob Quinn noted in February, when explaining the team’s decision to franchise defensive end Ziggy Ansah, Patricia has rarely had the opportunity to work with such a physically gifted pass rusher.
Obviously, Ansah’s production will be contingent on his health. He’s battled through a number of injuries the past two years, which have limited his consistency. Still, he finished last season on a high note, three sacks in each of the final two games, pushing his season total to 12. This offseason, he’s been handled with precaution, barely participating to ensure his health. When the bubble wrap does come off, he has indicated he’ll be moving around more within Patricia’s scheme.
Also on the edge, the Lions have a number of intriguing options. 2016 sack leader Kerry Hyder is returning from injury, Anthony Zettel will look to build on his breakout season from the year before and linebacker Devon Kennard, the biggest free agent addition this offseason, offer a variety of pass-rushing looks.
The group’s improvement is critical. They Lions ranked near the bottom of the NFL in quarterback pressure and sacks last season, a recipe for struggles.
On the line’s interior, the Lions will look to a pair of former Alabama teammates to ease the schematic transition, given their experience playing in a similar style defense in college. A’Shawn Robinson, a second-round draft pick in 2015, has been a solid pro, but houses plenty of untapped potential in his 6-foot-4, 322-pound frame. He reunites with rookie Da’Shawn Hand, a former five-star recruit that fell to Detroit in the fourth round this year.
In the next level, Patricia views the linebackers as the key to his defense. Kennard plays an obvious role here, providing the Lions a bigger, more versatile option than they had in previous years with Tahir Whitehead. But the Lions will look to middle linebacker Jarrad Davis to be the unit’s leader in his second season.
Thrust into a starting role as a rookie, Davis dealt with understandable inconsistencies, particularly in coverage and pursuit angles, but the invaluable experience should have him primed to make a significant step in his sophomore campaign.
The third linebacker spot has become a sub-package piece in the modern, pass-happy NFL. Christian Jones, who signed with the Lions as a free agent this offseason, has an early leg up on the role, but Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Jonathan Freeny can also push for playing time with a strong camp.
New Lions secondary coach Brian Stewart will tell you coverage is coverage, regardless of scheme. Based on last season’s results, the Lions enter camp with enviable depth in the back end.
Cornerback Darius Slay is coming off his first All-Pro season after leading the NFL in interceptions and is complemented by cerebral safety Glover Quin, a former Pro Bowler. Between Tavon Wilson, Quandre Diggs, Teez Tabor, Nevin Lawson Jamal Agnew and DeShawn Shead, the Lions should be able to be able to piece together a strong starting group capable of absorbing an injury or two along the way.
Tabor’s development is one of this offseason’s more intriguing storylines. Last year’s second-round draft pick spent much of his rookie year learning from the sidelines. If he’s able to follow Slay’s career arc, making significant progress in his second season, the Lions should be set on the outside for the next few years.
The Lions defense isn’t without its question marks and holes, but there are enough pieces in place for Patricia and his staff to craft a capable unit to complement the team’s more established offense. It will be on the coaches to put the players in the best positions to utilize their talents and the players to quickly master the scheme’s complex concepts.