Niyo: Lions' new-look defense is ready for a system check

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia looks over his players as the team hits the field for training camp on Friday.

Allen Park — You think you know what you’re looking at, but you really don’t.

That’s the idea, at least, when it comes to the Lions’ new-look defense, designed by head coach Matt Patricia with disguise in mind.

But on the eve of his first training camp practice, the same could be said for what we’re all about to see — coaches and players included — with this Lions team. And specifically with this defense.

They think they know what it’ll look like when it’s time to put their plans to the test. But they really can’t say for sure. Not yet, anyway.

So when they hit the field in pads for the first time today in Allen Park, “We’re anxious to see exactly where we’re at,” said Paul Pasqualoni, the coordinator who’ll be calling the shots for Patricia’s defense this fall. Anxious implies unease, or worry. And while that’s not really what Pasqualoni meant, it’d be understandable if there was some apprehension heading into camp.

More: 5 story lines to watch as Lions open training camp

More: Linebacker Jarrad Davis ready to lead in second season with Lions

The Lions have an All-Pro cornerback in Darius Slay, but few proven star commodities beyond that on the defensive side of the ball. And now Ziggy Ansah and Devin Kennard — arguably the two biggest pass-rushing threats — are temporarily sidelined to start camp.

They’re also coming off a 9-7 season in which the defense ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in most categories, all those takeaways notwithstanding. And it probably didn’t ease many concerns to see Patricia’s defense getting lit up like a Christmas tree in the Super Bowl, either.

Still, the biggest takeaway from the offseason glimpses we got of the Lions’ revamped scheme is the same thing linebacker Jarrad Davis was talking so excitedly about Thursday. Last year’s rookie first-round pick used words like “freedom” and “ownership” more than once. And instead of focusing on the pressure he feels as the QB of the defense, he spoke of the pressure he thinks the Lions can put on opponents, aided by Patricia’s ingenuity.

This defense, Davis said, “just allows you to be open as a player. It allows you do multiple things and really confuse offenses and confuse quarterbacks.”

‘A fluid system’

Again, that’s the plan, all right. Patricia spent 14 years in New England, the last six as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator, and the thing that stood out the most with those teams — aside from Tom Brady, of course — was the adaptive ability they showed year after year, and week to week.

All the varied personnel packages, the pre-snap movements and the post-snap surprises. Stand-up linebackers rushing the passer and hand-in-the-dirt ends dropping in coverage. The Lions spent the spring learning the basics of it, but now comes the heavy installation in the August heat. And then the season awaits, where cooler heads will prevail.

“This is not a rigid system,” linebackers coach Al Golden said. “This is a fluid system in multiplicity of fronts, of coverages, a lot of on-field communication. It’s basically an adapt-or-die system. So if you’re a rigid thinker, if everything is rote, you’re gonna struggle in this system.”

But, he adds, “I think we’ve done a great job … of getting the right guys in the room. And you get the sense early on that they’re not afraid to see the big picture, see it from a conceptual standpoint instead of just, ‘Where do I stand?’ and ‘What do I do on this play?’”

In the bigger picture, that’s what matters most. Before you confuse someone else, you have to figure things out for yourself. And we’ll find out soon enough how far along the Lions are in that process. The pads come on today, finally. Then after a week of work in Allen Park, they’ll head for joint workouts with the Raiders ahead of the preseason opener in Oakland. They’ll also practice against the Giants prior to the first exhibition game at Ford Field.

The questions on the defensive line begin with Ansah’s health but certainly don’t end there. What’s Kerry Hyder’s status as he returns from last summer’s Achilles injury? How well will Sylvester Williams and A’Shawn Robinson fit inside? And how quickly can rookie Da’Shawn Hand find his footing? Those are just a few that need answering.

‘Do what we do’

The linebackers are probably the most improved unit on the roster — along with the running backs, obviously — but the roles and responsibilities there will grow dramatically in this new defense. Kennard, once he’s back on the field, figures to be all over it, a versatile job description that was a big selling point in free agency. Davis also will be asked to do more, which seems to suit his attitude and playmaking abilities just fine. But who fills that other night spot in base defenses and sub packages? Christian Jones? Jalen Reeves-Maybin?

The Lions’ secondary should be a strength, no matter how it shakes out, given the depth of talent there. Darius Slay is coming off a breakout year, and he’s the star on the back end. But who’s the Star? That’s the better question, as those old Belichick position designations for nickel and dime packages come into play. More than two-thirds of defensive snaps are sub packages in the NFL these days, and for the Patriots that number was 85 percent last season — highest in the league, according to Football Outsiders — which typically meant a third safety on the field for Patricia’s defense.

In Detroit, that “big nickel” package could mean a bigger role for Quandre Diggs, a smart, tough player whose late-season audition at safety in 2017 was a bit of a revelation, recording three interceptions and a forced fumble in five games filling in for injured starter Tavon Wilson.

When asked about Diggs on Thursday, secondary coach Brian Stewart referenced his position flexibility as “an example of where we want to be” as a position group. Ideally, the depth chart won’t really matter, Stewart says, because “we’re gonna play as many guys as we can, in as many combinations as we can, and just basically have fun.”

Before they can do that, though, there’s one important task at hand.

“We’ve got to make sure the guys out there know how to do what we do,” Stewart said.

If only it was as simple as it sounds.