Experience, personnel upgrades have Lions' defense primed to make big leap
Allen Park — When Matt Patricia first arrived in Detroit, leaving his role as New England's defensive coordinator following Super Bowl 52 to become the Lions' head coach, he scoffed at questions about the specific schemes he intended to install.
Would the Lions continue to run a 4-3 defense, as they had for years, keeping a level of continuity with the personnel already in place? Or would Patricia ask general manager Bob Quinn to initiate a roster overhaul to implement a 3-4 front?
The answer it turned out was neither. Or maybe both, depending on the way you look at it.
What Patricia learned during his lengthy tenure in New England, under the guidance of legendary coach Bill Belichick, is schematic flexibility is a necessity in the modern NFL. If you declare what you are, either in words or on film, you become easier to scout and easier to game plan against.
And while there are guiding principles and techniques to how Patricia wanted the Lions to play defense, the defining trait of the unit needed to be multiplicity.
That still required a gradual overhaul. The Lions needed to add more versatile pieces to the defense, via free agency and the draft. The top signing last offseason, linebacker Devon Kennard, fit that mold. As a member of the Giants, he had played both off the ball and along the line of scrimmage.
In the draft, Quinn and Patricia found more pieces in safety Tracy Walker and defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand. Walker's frame and length allow him to line up in the box, in a deep zone or play man coverage on a tight end split from the formation, while Hand is capable of playing anywhere along the defensive front, from nose tackle to on the edge.
The retooling shifted into high gear near the trade deadline, when the Lions sent a fifth-round pick to the Giants for Damon "Snacks" Harrison, one of the league's premier run-stuffing defensive tackles. That acquisition gave Patricia the gap-controlling nose tackle that made effectively running 3-4 principles on early downs possible.
Overall, the unit fared well in Patricia's first season, finishing 10th in total defense. Not bad given the challenges of any schematic transition. And yet, there was so much more room for improvement.
To be fair, Rome wasn't built in a day. Similarly, it takes more than one offseason to execute a plan in the NFL. Now in its second season, with a few more pieces added to the puzzle, the Lions have the makings of a dominant defense with ever-increasing flexibility to counter the various offensive schemes around the league.
Patricia believes the biggest factor, more than any personnel additions, is the experience the returning players got within the scheme.
"I think having a year under the system and learning it a little bit more in-depth, some more detail, allows us to be a little more flexible because of the concepts maybe are understood a little bit better," Patricia said. "The defense is very multiple in the fact that there are a lot of things on the field that those guys can do and they can adjust different ways. They’re out there playing the game. I’m not, so they have the ability to do that. I think just familiarity with the calls and things like that allow them to maybe look a little more versatile in those situations. The second year kind of helps with that."
But the additions don't hurt and the Lions were more aggressive in their pursuit of upgrades this offseason than a year ago. Within minutes of free agency opening, the team agreed to a five-year, $90 million deal with Trey Flowers, shoring up a weakness at defensive end. Four months later, Quinn happily scooped up defensive tackle Mike Daniels after the Packers discarded him in late July.
Flowers, like Kennard, is representative of the positional versatility Patricia craves. The defensive lineman is equally competent on both edges and comfortable sliding inside when the situation arises. Plus, coming from New England and having played for Patricia in the past, the learning curve is essentially eliminated.
As for Daniels, his presence gives Detroit the deepest defensive interior in the NFL.
Given the skill sets, the two should bolster one of Detroit's biggest defensive shortcomings from a season ago — generating a pass rush without a blitz. Both players have an extensive track record of being able to disrupt the pocket. If effective, the pass rush will complement a run defense that was one of the league's best down the stretch in 2018, following the addition of Harrison.
In the second level, the Lions selected linebacker Jahlani Tavai and safety Will Harris on Day 2 of the NFL Draft. The duo are representative of the Lions preference for size up the middle of his defense.
And while both figure to be eased into action, similarly to the way the Lions handled Walker's pro transition a year ago, they each offer the potential for even more substitution options to counter how opponents want to attack.
"We want to be strong up the middle, and I think with the additions of Mike Daniels and other guys we put up front, Tavai and some of the other guys we've got coming back, there's a lot of depth there," Quinn said. "I'd say a lot of versatility. I'd think Matt and Coach P (defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni) are going to be able to really put the chess pieces in different places. You know? There's going to be situations where we want to put all those guys on the field and it's going to be, 'Where do we put them all?' That's a great problem to have."
Yes, finding a way to utilize all that talent is a great problem to have for the Lions. For opponents who will have to try to decipher how the team will deploy its resources, the situation is far less enviable.