Lions mailbag: Defense should be focus of rebuild

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Matt Patricia is 0-2 in his first season as Lions head coach, and faces his former team Sunday night.

Allen Park — It's been a while. 

I like doing the mailbag because it lets me know what's on the mind of the fans. But it's been tricky finding a window to put them together while adjusting to coach Matt Patricia's practice schedule. 

But now I know Thursday mornings are clear, so let's get back into this groove together. 

What do journalists/opinionators mean when they say "the Patriot way"? Can you provide a specific definition of that phrase?

— Fake Bob Quinn (@fakebobquinn) September 20, 2018

As far as I know, this was a media-driven term and everyone has a slightly different definition.

When I use it, it's often to refer to the hard-line stance the franchise takes regarding information, where every morsel is treated as something capable of dooming the game plan that week. Therefore, players and assistant coaches are trained, from the moment they arrive in the building to speak in cliches. It's why you hear the same refrains across the locker room, from "last year is last year" to "just trying to get better every day" to "we've moved on to (insert opponent name here.)" 

Beyond that, the other element of Patriots culture are the work ethic and "Do your job" mantra. That's not to say previous coaching staffs didn't work the players hard, but the non-football distractions in the workplace (ping-pong table, video game console in the break room) have been removed under Patricia.

The day-to-day intensity has been ratcheted up, overall. 

How should the Lions rebuild?

— DVE (@DetvrsEverybody) September 20, 2018

If you have a franchise quarterback, which the Lions believe they do, you're never truly rebuilding. Going forward, the Lions need to focus the next offseason, maybe two, on the defense. Sure, the offense will need a guard, slot receiver, two tight ends and another running back, but the defense is lacking in building blocks and playmakers, at all levels. 

That starts up front. With Ziggy Ansah hitting free agency at season's end, and Sylvester Williams and Ricky Jean Francois on one-year contracts, significant investment must be made in the team's defensive line. 

The Lions also could use another linebacker, a big-bodied run stopper who won't be a liability in coverage, to upgrade Christian Jones. And there's going to be a need for pieces in the secondary as well, likely a corner to play opposite Darius Slay and a replacement for Glover Quin. 

The guys brought in this offseason have had the easiest time adjusting to Patricia's scheme. Devon Kennard, as well as rookies Da'Shawn Hand and Tracy Walker, have been among the most consistent performers through two games. The Lions need to continue to put resources, both in the draft and free agency, into players Patricia believes will fit what he's trying to do. 

The Giants' Wayne Gallman Jr. (22) steps back into the end zone on a touchdown completion in front of Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis (40) during a preseason game at Ford Field.

Is there any chance the Lions move Davis to outside backer/ edge rusher? Seems like his skill set is his speed and strength but he can’t even cover me. I run like a 7.5 40. 

— Ryan Patrick (@RyanPat36836482) September 20, 2018

Davis' coverage woes are well-documented, but haven't been a big issue to start the year. He's had far more problems stopping the run. I want to preface this next sentence as speculative, but he appears to be thinking more than reacting on most plays. 

The one area where he's thriving is rushing the passer, but coming on a blitz is different than putting your hand in the dirt and telling an opponent you're coming down after down. Davis doesn't have the bulk or length to succeed as an edge rusher in the NFL. 

And moving him to an off-the-ball outside linebacker would require more coverage responsibilities, so let's scratch that idea right now. 

I'm tired of the constant coaching and scheme changes. I think Patricia is a viable long term coach - smart, affable with his players, etc. Your thoughts?

— JW (@jmwhitejmwhite) September 20, 2018

The Lions actually have had two long stretches of continuity the past decade. Jim Schwartz was given five seasons and Jim Caldwell had four. Both largely maintained their staffs through those stretches, as well, with the most notable change being the coordinator switch from Joe Lombardi to Jim Bob Cooter in 2015. 

By NFL standards, that's above-average stability. So I disagree with your opening assertion. 

As for Patricia's long-term viability, it boils down to one thing: winning. You have 3-4 years in the NFL to show you can win. After that, the brooms come out. His intelligence, discipline, affability, none of that matters if the Lions don't win a division or a playoff game in the next three years. 

If the Lions do start the season 0-5, do you think the Lions will have candidates to be traded at the deadline? Who would they be in your opinion? Would it be better to trade impending free agents, or wait and receive compensatory draft picks?

— Andy (@Ndroyd23) September 20, 2018

The trade deadline is approximately five weeks from now, and yeah, it's conceivable the Lions are winless at that point (although I highly doubt it). For argument's sake, let's say the team is 2-5. In that scenario, if there's a market for your talent, why not pick up an extra draft pick or two? 

A reminder, the NFL's trade deadline isn't like MLB or the NHL. It's much more difficult to integrate meaningful contributors on the fly in football. But if the Lions were going to move players, the two most likely, in my opinion, would be Ameer Abdullah and Golden Tate. 

Should the Lions continue to struggle early in the season, Lions wide receiver Golden Tate could be a candidate to be traded because of his free-agent status at season's end.

Abdullah still has talent and potential, which is why he's on the roster. But he's firmly behind Kerryon Johnson and Theo Riddick on the depth chart. At this point, Abdullah is an insurance policy, in case one of those two get hurt. So if a contender, in need of a back, offers up a fifth-round pick, you have to take it.  

As for Tate, every indicator suggests the Lions aren't prepared to pay him what the market will dictate, and given he'll be 31 next August, that's understandable. He's a savvy veteran receiver who could probably develop a role quickly in any offense, if given the opportunity. 

Trading him would signify the Lions are waving a white flag on the year, which is risky with locker room morale, and that must be weighed against building for the future. 

I noticed the Lions offense ran a “full house” look in their backfield last week. Can we expect some RPO plays out of that set in the coming weeks? And do you think Stafford would mesh well with that style of football?

— Court Smoots (@CourtSmoots) September 20, 2018

Until the Lions can consistently block designed runs, I don't know how much I'd mess with run-pass option play calls. If they do get to that point, Stafford's ability to read a defense leads me to believe he'd be more than capable of running the calls. 

Is it possible we could see Kerryon start this week? Maybe we’ll be told is LB punishment for the shove at the end of the 49ers game.

— Matthew Ratliff (@md_ratliff) September 20, 2018

Sure, it's certainly possible Patricia sends the important message that everyone, including established veterans, are accountable for their actions. But I'm less concerned about Johnson starting the game than the percentage of the workload he consumes. 

Johnson played more than double the snaps of LeGarrette Blount last week, which is a positive trend. Theo Riddick also played more than Blount, but when you're down three scores in the fourth quarter, Riddick's playing time is going to reflect that. 

Blount and Johnson each had eight carries, while the rookie was targeted six times in the pass game. I'd still like to see him get a little more of the workload, but, again, score dictated the game flow. At least we can say the backfield usage is trending in the right direction.  

Signs point to a larger role for Lions rookie running back Kerryon Johnson.

Did Quinn draft anyone in his first 2 years that is simply not a good fit for the new defensive scheme?

— Big Biting Pig (@BigBitingPig) September 20, 2018

Schematically, the two late-round defensive linemen, Anthony Zettel and Jeremiah Ledbetter, were bad fits for Patricia and already have been released. Cornerback Teez Tabor, with his physical style actually works fine for the way the coach likes to play on the outside. Jarrad Davis, A'Shawn Robinson and Miles Killebrew are also pieces that have skill sets that fit, on paper. 

The one remaining who is the most awkward fit is Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He can get by on his instincts, but he just doesn't have the size the Lions prefer at linebacker in this scheme. That's also problematic for Killebrew, who has been switched to that position

Fortunately for those two, they're buoyed by their contributions on special teams. 

What happens if this team is 0-5 at the bye? is everyone’s job safe regardless?

— Kalsarikännit Al (@LethalSax) September 20, 2018

I'm not expecting Patricia to make any staffing changes this early into his tenure, but if anyone is going to get thrown under the bus, it would be Cooter. The inherited offensive coordinator could be ousted to send a message, while quarterback coach George Godsey would be the logical interim answer until Patricia had a full offseason to tab a replacement.

GIF game is on point. What’s the ROI been like on LBs so far? We spent big on Kennard and to some extent Jones and Davis. Better ROI on LBs or O-Line?

— Jeff Romback (@JeffRomback) September 20, 2018

Kennard has been the Lions' best defensive player. He's looked good rushing the passer and his ability to identify plays and seamlessly react has been impressive. He's broken up a pass to his side in each of the first two games. 

While it's far too early to be making bold proclamations, he's looking like a promising signing. 

Christian Jones has been more up-and-down, which isn't surprising. It's not like he commanded big money as a free agent this offseason. He's more of a veteran stopgap until more resources can be poured into the unit. 

Davis has been disappointing, no doubt. He's smart, dedicated and physically gifted, but the tools haven't come together in a meaningful way, at least not yet. This defense is designed for linebackers to be the playmakers, and so far, he's not making many plays.  

What’s going on with Ragnow? He was one of the few bright spots in the preseason. Has looked lost / overwhelmed through two games.

— jschulz (@jschulz79) September 20, 2018

Ragnow looked really good during training camp, but I guess we failed to take into account he was practicing against the Lions defensive line, a far from formidable interior. 

Right now, Ragnow is going through an adjustment period, particularly as a pass protector. He's been susceptible to some of the more sudden pass rush moves, particularly inside, as well as stunts. 

He's smart, and dedicated to his craft. I imagine he'll get through these bumps and come out a better player on the other side. But hopes he'd play like a Pro Bowler out the box were misplaced. 

Is there any indication the Lions legitimately tried to get Khalil Mack? If not, why?

— Jameson Cook (@JamesonCook) September 20, 2018

Not seriously, no. It really boils down to the cost, both the draft picks paid and the contract awarded to Mack after the deal. 

Also, please don't confuse what I'm saying here, but there's a significant overlap with Mack and Kennard. Schematically, you'd struggle to play them both, so adding Mack negates your top offseason addition, who, as mentioned above, has played pretty well. 

Yes, Mack is in a different stratosphere than Kennard. We all get that. I'm just noting it was never likely the team would spend twice to plug the same hole. 

From your article on Glover Quin, I would extrapolate that he’s not the only player adjusting to the new scheme and reacting just a little late. Are there other examples of teams changing defenses over an off season and how long they took to adjust?

— Dave Reimink (@DaveReimink) September 20, 2018

More: Lions' Quin says instincts are lagging in new scheme

Every team is going to be different. A relatable example would be the Chicago Bears under Vic Fangio. There were some real struggles, over the first two years, as the team went from a Tampa 2 to Fangio's hybrid scheme. The front essentially had to be overhauled.

He inherited one of the league's worst units and had them in the middle of the pack the first two years, before last season, when Chicago finished 10th in total defense and ninth in points allowed. 

The Lions don't even look like a middle-of-the-pack unit right now, but I'm going to reserve judgment on the progress until midseason, at least. 

Will A'Shawn Robinson ever be in the starting lineup again in your opinion? He was one of my favorite D-linemen coming out of college and when he hit the pros he just sorta fell off. I still liked a lot from him though ... all the batted passes, the pick-6 from Brees.

— Čhälk (@Adam_Carter3) September 20, 2018

If he continues to perform like he did last week, an active and productive 23 snaps, yeah, he could certainly work his way back into the mix. That was the type of response he needed after being scratched from the lineup in Week 1.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers