Allen Park – Regardless of scheme, the first goal of every NFL defense is to stop the run.
Even though the league has evolved into a pass-first business over the past decade, the ability for a defense to stymie the opposing ground game makes an opponent one-dimensional, routinely puts them in difficult third-and-long scenarios and helps dictate a game’s tempo.
In the Detroit Lions’ preseason opener, the defense did not accomplish that goal.
The Oakland Raiders ran with relative ease against the Lions, debuting a new scheme under coach Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. And although the concepts deployed this time of year are vanilla, running the football and stopping the run aren’t typically reliant on exotic concepts. Success and failure in the trenches is dependent upon solid fundamentals, technique and winning individual matchups.
So of all the areas the Lions need rapid improvement coming out of that game, correcting issues with the run defense might be the most pressing.
“Again, the consistency that we have to have in the run game needs to be there, and we have to get another week of that,” Patricia said. “Our techniques and the fundamentals and the pad level and the hand placement and being able to play with leverage, that all needs to improve so those plays don’t happen in that situation.
“(There were) a couple scheme plays that we had to address that we did, that may be a little bit different than what we’re used to or that we haven’t seen before. That’s part of the ... this part of the year is getting used to some of those plays. But if you go back to the basics, I’d say that’s what really has to just be more consistent, so that we don’t have those big play-type situations.”
In total, the Raiders rushed for 147 yards on 31 carries, or 4.74 yards per attempt. And Marshawn Lynch didn’t even show up in the box score because his 60-yard touchdown in the opening minutes was negated by a borderline hold.
Even though that play didn’t count, it highlighted a schematic weakness, which saw Lynch run around the edge of the defense with relative ease after cornerback DeShawn Shead was motioned away from that side of the field, and 256-pound edge rusher Devon Kennard and nickelback Quandre Diggs were easily swallowed up by the Raiders’ left tackle and tight end.
Detroit’s run defense was also an issue last season. After starting off the year well, things fell apart following a season-ending injury to Haloti Ngata. Through five weeks, the defensive allowed opponents to gain 3.3 yards per carry, which jumped to 5.5 yards the final 11 games.
Patricia wasn’t here for that, but noted earlier in camp that one player shouldn’t make or break a team’s ability to stop the run.
“It has to be all of them, they all have to work together,” he said. “You have run fits, you have coordination of fronts, and scheme points and secondary fits and all that stuff, and you just want to make sure you’re solid on all those.”
Patricia’s defense in New England also struggled stopping the run last season. The 4.7 yards per carry allowed ranked 31st in the NFL. It proved especially problematic in the Super Bowl, when the Eagles churned out 164 yards on 27 carries, including gains of 21 and 36yards by current Lions back LeGarrette Blount.
But Patricia has also orchestrated quality run-stopping units in the recent past. The Patriots ranked in the top-10 in yards per carry from 2014-16. His challenge is to elevate the Lions to that level, in a hurry.
Although he doesn’t have a lot of it, time should help. There are three more weeks for the Lions players to adjust to their roles within the scheme. Plus, getting healthy could also play a role. Ziggy Ansah and Ricky Jean Francois, who has experience in the scheme, both sat out against Oakland.
The Lions are primed to be put to the test this week, when star rookie Saquon Barkley and the Giants come to town for three joint practices and a preseason game. He gained 43 yards on four carries in his debut, although he reportedly suffered a minor hamstring tweak Monday, which could limit his participation this week.