Bears offer Lions a vision of slow, successful overhaul
Allen Park — Patience is a dirty word for Detroit Lions fans. They’ve been waiting six decades, after all.
But at 3-5, and coming off a pair of demoralizing defeats, the focus already feels like it’s shifting to next season.
First-year Lions coach Matt Patricia probably didn’t expect to be here at this point in the season, especially not after the team dismantled the Dolphins on the road a few weeks back to climb back to .500, but at the end of the preseason he was sending out warning signals the installation of his system and culture wasn’t going to be like flipping a switch.
“They understand that this is a long journey,” Patricia said before the start of the season. “This isn’t a sprint that’s going to take place overnight. This is something that’s going to take a long time to do. This is something that’s a change in the way we’re doing things to try to make it a sustainable situation.”
Nowhere has the been more evident than with the Lions defense.
Patricia's résumé is grounded in his defensive prowess, but through his first half-season in Detroit, the unit has been among the league’s worst. That shows up most when you look at efficiency.
The Lions rank 27th in both yards and points allowed per drive. They rushing defense is allowing 5.1 yards per carry, 31st in the NFL, while opposing QBs are completing 68.0 percent of their passes, which checks in at 27th. The team also is in the bottom 10 in generating turnovers.
The defensive struggles have spilled over to the offense, hurting the team’s field position and limiting the number of possessions. Complain all you want about Jim Bob Cooter's play-calling, but Detroit is actually 13th in points per possession.
But the defense is also undergoing the biggest overhaul, schematically, going from an attacking 4-3 to a gap-control multiple front that required personnel overhaul the team patchworked Patricia’s first offseason.
The Chicago Bears, the Lions' NFC North rival and this Sunday's opponent, can probably relate. In 2015, as part of a coaching staff change, the team brought in respected defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was coming off a successful stint in San Francisco.
The Bears had run a 4-3 for years, first under Lovie Smith, then Mel Tucker. Like Patricia, Fangio was bringing a gap-control, hybrid defense. And, as you might imagine, that overhaul didn’t happen overnight.
The Bears were a bottom-three defense the two years before Fangio entered the picture. And the first two years he was on staff, the improvements were incremental. The unit finished 20th and 24th in scoring those seasons.
But in year three, with the pieces in place, things started to come together. In 2017, the Bears finished in the top 10 in points and yards allowed, which is more impressive given the team's offense struggled with a wet-behind-the-ears rookie quarterback at the helm.
This year, following the bold trade for All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack, Chicago’s defense has reached the next level. The Monsters of the Midway are back. Through eight games, the Bears rank in the top five in total yards, rushing yards, passer rating against, points allowed and turnovers.
Even with Mack sidelined the last two games with an ankle injury, they’ve held each of those opponents to under 300 yards.
Three years into Fangio’s tenure, there was almost no roster carryover from when he arrived outside of cornerback Kyle Fuller. So while it’s frustrating to have to be thinking about next year, or two years down the road, maybe that’s simply the realistic timeline the Lions face.
“I have coached 14 years in one place and kind of went through some different defensive changes there, too,” Patricia said. “So, look, change just in general, when you have personnel change or scheme change or whatever it is or the game changes, that’s another big part of it too, it’s a process. It always is.
“And that’s part of it where you have to just stick to the process and understand that there’s a grind to it and you’re trying to put the best product out on the field that you can within the realms of the players or the team that you have. It’s one thing to just kind of have a playbook, which is great.
"But you have to really make sure you can execute whatever in that playbook is going to help your team that year that game perform at a high level.”
To date, the Lions defense hasn’t performed to a high level. At least not consistently. But remember, when the Lions line up in 2020, you can imagine there won’t be many pieces from the team’s 2017 defense remaining — Darius Slay, Jarrad Davis and maybe A’Shawn Robinson.
This overhaul is going to take time. It’s a long journey.
And if everything goes according to plan, if Patricia lives up to his reputation, maybe we'll be talking about those Lions the way people are talking about these Bears.
Lions at Bears
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Soldier Field, Chicago
Records: Lions 3-5, Bears 5-3
Line: Bears by 6