Winning strategy? Lions are disrupting quarterbacks without relying on blitzes
Allen Park — You've probably heard the cliche a few hundred times, that the NFL is a copycat league. One team has success with either an innovative concept or bringing back an older idea that had fallen out of favor. Suddenly, a dozen or more teams are following the leader, trying to ride the momentum of a trend.
Of course, some team has to start any given wave. And while it's too early to suggest the Detroit Lions are a trendsetter with their defensive strategy to start the 2019 season, the results of the team's pass defense in relation to its pass rush tendencies at the very least merit a closer look and continued monitoring.
A successful pass defense is often the result of a harmonious marriage between its rush and coverage. The ability to disrupt the quarterback essentially plays an equal role to ability of the secondary to cover the opponent's receiving options.
Typically a team rushes four defenders, and with a talented front that consistently wins its one-on-one matchups, that alone can be sufficient. When the standard four isn't getting the job done, defensive coordinators have the ability to blitz, sending an extra defender or three after the quarterback.
It would be wildly inaccurate to suggest the Lions aren't interested in disrupting the pocket, but for the second consecutive season, they're near the bottom of the league in pressure rate. Using data collected by Football Outsiders, the defense is getting pressure on 22 percent of opposing dropbacks. Only the winless Miami Dolphins have been worse.
This, despite the Lions committing $90 million to signing Trey Flowers, the best defensive end available in free agency.
Perhaps the most significant reason the Lions aren't generating pressure is due to the resources they're committing to getting the job done. According to research provided by Pro Football Focus, the Detroit defense is blitzing less often than any team in the NFL, sending more than four rushers just 11 percent of passing downs.
Here's where it gets interesting, and borders on a trend, given four games are in the books — the Lions are rushing with just three defenders on nearly a third of pass plays. No team is deploying this strategy more frequently.
It's fair to say, the early results have been promising. By dropping eight defenders into coverage, and clogging the passing lanes, the Lions are allowing only 55.4 percent of passes to be completed against them. That's nearly 10 percent better than a season ago. It's also currently the third-best mark in the NFL. Additionally, the defense ranks in the top-five in opposing passer rating, indicating how well they're impacting opponents' efficiency when throwing the ball.
Lions coach Matt Patricia, who prides himself on having a defense that has the multiplicity and versatility to match different opponents' strengths, avoided putting too much emphasis on Detroit's early-season, pass-rush tendencies.
"I think with the three, the four, the five, the six, six-plus-type of rush situations, all those depend on the particular week of the game plan," he said. "I think there are definitely opportunities where three-man rushes are good, important. Sometimes it has to do with the danger of the skilled players that are also out there on the field, and how you feel that looks from an overall matchup or situational standpoint. Those are kind of some of the things that go, or tie into those factors there.
"It’s really kind of a philosophy of those particular situations. It really depends on down-and-distance, field position, point in the game, what you’re trying to defend in those situations, and also what are the individual matchups up front. How do you feel about those? Quarterback movement comes into play with those situations too, so you really try to analyze all that and figure out."
The Lions have definitely seen their fair share of mobile quarterbacks to start the season, starting with No. 1 draft pick Kyler Murray to start the campaign and reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes before the bye. But in between those guys was Philip Rivers, a prototypical pocket passer who hasn't rushed for more than 35 yards in a season the past four years.
Up next is Aaron Rodgers, who is equally capable of making plays in the pocket and on the move. He also has a long history of punishing teams that blitz, so it very well could be another week where the Lions lean heavily on what's worked so far.
"Well, I guess what we’ve done has been fairly successful," Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said last week. "It doesn’t mean that we’re going to continue to go that way. It just means that it’s the way we’ve gone so far."
Lions at Packers
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. Monday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
Records: Lions 2-1-1, Packers 4-1
Line: Packers by 4