Allen Park — As a journalist, you have a responsibility to seek out what you don’t know, but good luck deciphering what the preseason tells us about the Lions’ new defensive scheme.
If we go strictly by the numbers, you’d have reason to believe the Lions’ defense might be in for an awful year. The unit finished last in scoring, last in sacks, last in yards per play and close to the bottom in several other categories. Reasons for optimism, based on visual evidence alone, were few and far between.
But we must remind ourselves, each time an opponent faced minimal resistance as it drove the length of the field, the preseason is not reality.
There is no game-planning, the schemes are vanilla and, as coach Matt Patricia regularly reminded us in recent weeks, the focus is on situational football and player evaluation far more than any efforts to win those games.
No moment represented that more than when Patricia lined the Lions up for a 62-yard field goal to end the half in Tampa Bay, less than two hours after heavy rains drenched the playing surface. No coach attempts a kick in that situation, but Patricia wanted to see how his team would handle defending the play if the kick was missed.
The Lions did miss and the Bucs returned it 109 yards for a touchdown as time expired. It wasn’t pretty, but a teachable moment was born.
Back to the defense.
Throughout the four-game exhibition slate, the Lions struggled to stop the run, a hallmark of any respectable unit. Opponents averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and that’s not counting a 60-yard touchdown that was called back in the opener.
Most of the damage came on outside runs, raising questions about Detroit’s ability to set an edge in their new scheme, given the perimeter is now occupied by a 255-pound linebacker where a 280-pound defensive end lined up in the previous iteration of the scheme.
‘I think we’ll be fine’
Yet even in the ground game, where individual matchups would appear to trump scheme, linebacker coach Al Golden highlighted why that’s not the case when explaining why he wasn’t concerned about the edge-setting issue.
“I think we’ll be fine,” he said. “For us, there’s no edge pressure, there’s no over-shifting or anything to take those things away. We’re really just in base (defense) at this point in time. From a technique standpoint, I don’t think there’s anything we need to change.”
But what about rushing the passer, another absolute necessity for success in the NFL? The Lions only tallied two sacks in four games, an ominous sign for a team coming off a campaign where they finished 20th in the category, and 27th in pressure rate.
Again, a Lions position coach isn’t sweating it.
“No, we’ll be there,” defensive line coach Bo Davis said with a smile. “It’s just the fact that we had guys in different spots. When we get everybody playing together, it’s going to be a different scene.”
If the Lions do have a pass rush, expectations are it will be fueled by a healthy Ziggy Ansah, with a boost provided by free-agent addition Devon Kennard, who had six pressures in limited work during the preseason.
Davis doesn’t see it that way.
“There’s a certain way you have to rush,” he said. “You have to work together to make the quarterback feel uncomfortable in the pocket.”
Throughout the offseason, Patricia’s focus has been teaching his techniques and fundamentals. As Davis puts it, if you’re playing with proper fundamentals, the scheme takes care of itself. And while each and every coach believes there’s work to be done tightening up those fundamentals, every one of them, to a man, is comfortable with where the roster is on that front entering Week 1.
Success in Patricia’s past
Beyond the confidence of the coaching staff, the biggest reason for optimism has to be Patricia’s reputation for adjustments through the course of the season. Look no further than his Patriots defense from a year ago.
In the 2017 season-opener, a prime-time matchup against Kansas City, the Patriots gave up 42 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs racked up 537 yards of offense in the victory, nearly 200 of it on the ground.
By the quarter point of the season, the Patriots still hadn’t fully recovered, allowing 33 points in back-to-back weeks, before everything clicked.
Over the next eight games, an opponent didn’t score more than 17 points. The final 12 weeks, opponents averaged 14 points per game as the Patriots rallied to finish fifth in the league in scoring defense.
It marked the fourth straight year New England held opponents to under 20 points per game, something no other NFL team can claim.
There are plenty of questions about how this defense will perform, from the scheme to the personnel, but we just have to accept the fact there isn’t enough information to accurately predict how it might turn out. We’re just going to have to wait and see.