For Lions' defense, forcing more turnovers near top of to-do list
Allen Park — Explaining the plan for the day's upcoming practice on Tuesday morning, Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia noted his team would be spending more time working in the red zone.
That's been a clear point of emphasis this offseason. Hardly surprising, considering the offense ranked 24th in the league at turning trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns a season ago.
Stating the obvious, Patricia noted, "Nothing more important than points."
Score more points than your opponent, you win. Simple stuff. But the other side of lighting up your half of the scoreboard is preventing your opponent from doing the same. And while there are a lot of ways to accomplish that, the one that can alter the course of a game the most is generating turnovers.
And just like the team's struggles in the red zone, they were equally, if not more disappointing in the takeaway department in 2018. In fact, only the San Francisco 49ers produced fewer than Detroit's 14 turnovers.
With that in mind, flipping that script is another focal point for Patricia and Co. heading into the season.
"I would say the players, second time through some of these drills, you can really kind of see them execute a lot better," Patricia said. "I think they’re really kind of dialed in on what it is, where as we might be in a situation last year where everything was so overwhelming. I think some of the things now are just routine, and now they’re really getting the details. and I would say turnovers would be one of those."
Watching practices, there are the obvious signs the Lions are working on it. Every day, the team has run a ball-security drill that serves the dual purpose of driving home protection points for ball carriers and jarring the ball free for defenders.
"We've got to focus on the turnover, period, especially the dislodgement of the ball, regardless of whether it's the quarterback, running back or receiver after the catch," Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. "I think we've got to improve there."
Pasqualoni acknowledged no player is more susceptible to coughing the ball up than a quarterback under pressure in the pocket. And if you hadn't already guessed, that, too, was an area the Lions lagged behind the rest of the league last season.
Using Donovan McNabb as an example, a player Pasqualoni coached at Syracuse, the coordinator said the fundamental skill of a quarterback placing two hands on the ball has a tendency to go out the window in favor of instincts when the pocket collapses.
And when that hand comes off the ball, it's a mistake waiting to happen.
"If you can keep that guy in the pocket, it's a very vulnerable position, very violent place, very difficult place for the quarterback to be," Pasqualoni said. "That becomes a great opportunity for a pass rusher to get the ball out. The great pass rushers — and I've been fortunate to be around a few of those guys — somehow, some way they had awareness. When that front hand came off the ball, they were like sharks in the water."
Behind the scenes, the Lions are leaning on film and trend studies to give them a leg up on the competition. Patricia avoided specifics, but after analyzing situations where players were losing their grip on the ball, the team is adjusting techniques and teachings to take advantage.
"Yeah, there’s a couple of different things in there," Patricia said. "I think if you look at last year, with the ball, and the way some of the ways the players were handling the ball and the security. I think those are some of the things we are going after a little bit different.
"I think turnovers are being forced in a little bit of a different way, with some of the different techniques that defenders are using, so I thought there was some pretty good stuff there. So, we’ll give it a shot."
In the passing game, there's an emphasis on deflections. Once the ball's trajectory is altered, the chances of it ending up in the defense's hands increase significantly.
"We've got to get our hands on more balls in zone (coverage)," linebackers coach Al Golden said earlier this offseason. "We have to deflect more balls, get (pass breakups), and we have to intercept some. That's a challenge for all of us at linebacker. I don't think we got our hands on enough balls. That's been an emphasis for us."
Of course, producing a high volume of takeaways doesn't guarantee success. Yes, four division winners and both of last year's Super Bowl participants from 2018 finished among among the top seven in the statistic, but so did Cleveland, Denver and Miami, three teams that finished under .500.
On paper, behind a talent-rich front, Detroit's defense has the potential to be very good, and is the unit most likely to propel the team to success in the coming season. If the group can find a way to generate turnovers at a league-average rate or better, scoring points might not be so important.