Lions' bend-then-break defense is among worst in NFL

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have no defensive identity, unless under-performing across the board can be considered an identity. 

In the past, Matt Patricia has coached his fair share of bend-don't-break units, but this isn't that. The Lions are giving up yardage in droves, 424.1 per game to be exact, but they're also giving up plenty of points, 27.1 through eight games. Both rank in the bottom seven of the league. They're bending, then breaking. 

Last year, the team was pretty good stopping the run, elite even after the acquisition of man-mountain nose tackle Damon Harrison at the trade deadline. Yet in 2019, seven of eight opponents have topped 100 yards, three of the previous four have blown past 150 on the ground, all to the tune of 4.7 yards per carry. 

Damon Harrison

To make matters worse, the Lions are also deficient against the pass. They are one of 10 teams allowing a passer rating against over 100, in large part because they can't get any pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

That's a problem that extends across both schematics and personnel. According to data released by ESPN, the Lions are last in both pass-rush win rate — defined as individual defenders' ability to beat a block in under 2.5 seconds — and blitz frequency. 

On third downs, Detroit ranks 30, with opponents converting better than 48 percent of the time. And in the red zone, back to that bend-don't-break conversation, the Lions are bottom-10 there, too. 

Outside of a barrage of forced fumbles earlier in the year, it's difficult to find any one thing the Lions do well on defense, leaving it without anything to hang its hat on as struggles, and losses, continue to mount. 

"Well, I think that we’d like it to be based on consistency," defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. "There were times on Sunday (against Oakland) that we played well. There were times in the game that we were consistent, and there were times where we were not consistent. Ultimately, in this league, with the margin of error being so small, being so slim, you have to play consistent defense. You’d like to be consistent."

Consistency has been the word of the week, maybe even the season, but the Lions continue to come up empty-handed searching for it. The fact that fundamentals — the foundation of everything Patricia has tried to teach since the day he arrived in Detroit — are poor this deep into the season is beyond troubling. 

"I wouldn’t say any words other than, it is what it is right now, and we have to get better," Patricia said. "For us, it’s about how we handle it going forward. I think anything other than that is not really going to be helpful.

"Honestly, fundamentals will be talked about from the first day we start until the very last day of each and every single season," Patricia said. "Because in the end, those are the skill sets that come into play regardless of the call, regardless of the situation, regardless of the play. Usually, at some point in the biggest games of the year, it will be a fundamental skill set that helps that thing go either way. So, those are things that you don’t take for granted, and you work on them all the time.”

Matt Patricia

As for trying to establish a defensive identity, Patricia denounced the importance.

"I think for us, we’re just trying to go out and play well every single week," he said. "I don’t think you can categorize things into identities or non-identities. We try to do whatever we do each week to win. We try to do what we can to stop the opponents that we play. Obviously, there are a lot of good teams in this league and a lot of good players, so for us we’re trying to do whatever we can that particular week to go out and give ourselves a chance to win.”

Stopping what the opponent does best has actually been another Patricia calling card, and to some extent, his team has done that on occasion this year. They managed to hold Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, two of the most prolific passers in NFL history, without a touchdown pass. And a week ago, the team managed to keep superstar running back Saquon Barkley in check. Plus, none of the slew of top tight ends the team has faced has managed to do much against Detroit. 

But that's hardly been enough, as the Lions sit under .500 at the halfway point, well outside the NFC playoff picture as they prepare for the stretch run. All despite having a productive offense, averaging 24.0 points per game after you remove defensive and special teams touchdowns. 

The Lions defense will look to get on track against a struggling offense this week, when the team travels to Chicago to face the Bears. The opponent ranks 28th in yards and 27th in points through eight games.

Sinking to the bottom 

Where the Lions rank in key defensive statistics this season:

Total defense: 31st (424.1 YPG)

Pass defense: 30th (288.4 YPG)

Rush defense: 27th (135.8 YPG)

Scoring defense: 27th (27.1 PPG)