Problem solving, conceptual teaching are roots of Matt Patricia's coaching methods

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park – Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia could have been a rocket scientist. Much has been made of his undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering, and the career he left behind two decades ago to pursue his true passion, coaching football.

Matt Patricia works with players during a minicamp practice in June.

But as much as that narrative has shaped public perception of Patricia, it’s his second degree, earned from the University of Massachusetts during his early years working as a defensive position coach at Amherst, that has had an equally, if not greater impact on how he’s reached the upper echelon of his profession.

That latter degree is a master’s in education, and Patricia’s emphasis on, and methodology of his teaching, are his defining coaching traits.

The son of two educators, Patricia has long talked about part of the lure back to football was the opportunity to teach, not just about the game he loved, but helping mold young minds taking their first steps into adulthood.

“As a coach, you’re a teacher,” Patricia said in 2018, weeks before he was hired by the Lions. “You’re trying to teach in all different avenues, from the game plan, technique, life, whatever it may be. Teacher, mentor, whatever it may be. I think when you’re in front of the group, and you’re presenting, you’re very much, at that point, teaching. I think you want to hit, whatever it is, the seven (styles) of learning. You want to make sure you’re hitting all those when you’re going through.”

Where Patricia isn’t particularly unique as a coach is his emphasis on fundamentals. During the offseason, he gives presentations at coaching clinics on the topic, often under the theme of eliminating bad football.

He believes, even at the highest level of the sport, more games are lost than won. The dropped pass on third down, the missed tackle allowing extra yards and a conversion, the pre-snap penalties; in his mind these are often the deciding factors in the NFL, especially when so many of the league’s outcomes are decided by seven or fewer points.

Patricia’s practices are filled with drills focused on fundamentals, acts of repetition that build muscle memory. According to the coach, this can bail out a player both in times of physical exhaustion or when the play calling is subpar.

Good coaching, good teaching, it all starts with a fundamentally sound team.

Matt Patricia instructs linebacker Jarrad Davis during a Lions minicamp practice.

“When the scheme goes bad, you need to make sure the fundamentals are where they need to be,” Patricia told The Detroit News. “If the fundamentals are bad, the scheme doesn’t work, it won’t matter. If the scheme is bad and the fundamentals are bad, it’s bad coaching. If the fundamentals are bad, you can’t build. It has to be the foundation and it has to stay consistent.”

Some of that teaching has started to take root in Detroit. The Lions were one of the least-penalized teams last season, and they made a midseason coaching change on special teams, an area where they struggled. Additionally, according to Pro Football Focus, the Lions were among the best tackling teams in 2018.

In other areas, the Lions still lag behind, but that’s annual challenge of any coaching staff, to clean up as many mistakes as possible. To eliminate bad football.

Schematically, the adjustment has been more challenging, because Patricia’s teaching style is different than most. Here, he departs from the rote memorization that is the foundation of fundamentals and places an emphasis on conceptual understanding and problem solving.

It’s where his own experience intersects.

“I would say problem solving, for me, is my background, engineering,” Patricia said. “I have my master’s in math education, which is problem solving. Problem solving is one of my favorite classes.”

When Patricia teaches his scheme to his players, it goes beyond the X’s and O’s that fill up page after page of a playbook. It’s not about 11 players moving from point A to point B, but creating an understanding about why they’re moving between the destinations and the goal trying to be accomplished.

One Lions defender compared the coaching style to giving each player a tool box, based on their skill set. Some jobs require a hammer and screw driver, others a drill and saw. Each week, the game plan asks players to use specific tools from their box to accomplish a job, while maintaining knowledge of how to utilize the other tools in the box if the game plan needs to be changed midstream.

The more tools a player has, the more versatile they are and the more multiple the scheme can be, which hypothetically allows the Lions to match up against any opponent, regardless of style.

Defensively, the first problem the Lions try to solve on a weekly basis is how to take away what an opponent does best. For example, in last year’s victory over the New England Patriots, the coaching developed a strong plan to limit tight end Rob Gronkowski, particularly across the middle of the field on second- and third-and-long plays, by using a bigger, more physical nickel back in man coverage in conjunction with bracketing the future Hall of Famer with a safety.

Gronkowski finished with four catches for 51 yards in Detroit’s 26-10 victory.

Another unique element of Patricia’s style how much trust he puts in his players, which leads to the scheme becoming a collaborative effort. 

“You’re trying to teach problem solving,” Patricia said. “That’s what it’s really about that. It’s about the player’s ability to problem solve on the field, because I can’t be out there.”

Matt Patricia

One player explained how there are times during a game when he’ll alter his coached responsibility on a play based on something he’s seeing in real time. Then, when he heads to the sideline, Patricia will ask the player why he did what he did and they will debate the merits of whether it was the right decision, potentially resulting in an alteration of the player’s future schematic responsibilities to better accomplish the day’s goal.

One thing each player we talked to agreed on is there’s an increased comfort level operating in Patricia’s scheme in year two, but that doesn’t mean the coach feels he’s been teaching any less this second offseason.

“I’m probably actually teaching more,” Patricia said. “This is the fun time. To get diving in there and coaching it up really, I think the second time – it’s kind of like anything, the second time you hear it, the third time you hear it, you pick up other nuances or details or other important information. The first time you hear it, you’re trying to absorb all of it. Maybe now that you have a basis or fundamental or a little bit of a knowledge behind it, now you start to pick up the minute details that make a big difference out on the field. I’m just trying to make sure I’m getting all of that out to everybody.

“What’s the rule in teaching – three times? The third time is when they actually understand it, so we’re only on the second time right now.”