Four Downs: Lions' dreadful defense in need of an overhaul

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 35-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

First down

This defense is bad. Historically bad. And, quite frankly, that makes no sense. 

The Lions defense coughed up 509 yards of total offense to the Cowboys on Sunday.

Let's drop the genius or guru talk, since it's ridiculous to be throwing around those labels in sports. Let's just settle on the basic premise that defense is supposed to be the head coach's specialty. And whether Matt Patricia is calling the plays or not, this is his defense, being taught and run by people he hired and trusts. 

Second, it's not like the Lions don't have the individual pieces to make this work.

There's Darius Slay, the Pro Bowl corner. Justin Coleman is the highest-paid nickel in the league. Damon Harrison is one of the best run-stopping defensive tackles of this decade. Trey Flowers got $90 million in free agency to come to Detroit. Jarrad Davis and Jahlani Tavai are a pair of early-round linebackers in the second level. Plus, there are system-fit free agents in Christian Jones and Devon Kennard, one of which was recently signed to an extension

What in the world is going on? 

Before the season began, many, including myself, suggested this defense was the most talented group since the team's dominant 2014 unit. And while there have undoubtedly been some injuries up front that have hindered the overall performance, they've performed at a level closer to worst unit in franchise history.

Scratch that, this defense is actually allowing opponents to rack up more yards than the 2008 unit. You know, the team, the one that went 0-16. 

Even if we concede that the league has changed, and offenses are putting up bigger numbers across the board, this has been an unmitigated disaster. Worse yet, there's no reason to believe there's reprieve in the near future. 

This is who this group is. Even when they do something right, like bottle up an opponent's two best players like they did with Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper on Sunday, they still get lit up for 35 points and more than 500 yards. 

The root of most of the problems remains the inability to rush the passer. With time to sit in the pocket long enough to update their Amazon wish lists, this generation of passer is going torch most secondaries. The Lions get beat deep, they get beat short and miss tackles and they rarely intercept passes. 

The Lions are about to play two of the league's three worst offenses. If they manage to cobble together a couple of decent performances, don't be fooled by the sales pitches of improvement. This group is broken and the scheme and play-calling need to be overhauled this offseason. 

Second down

I don't know if Matt Patricia is on the hot seat, but general manager Bob Quinn sure painted himself into a corner when he fired previous coach Jim Caldwell and said the organization's standard is higher than 9-7. 

What Quinn meant was the standard was higher than mediocrity. And there's no reason to re-write history, the Lions were mediocre under Jim Caldwell, regularly relying on fourth-quarter comebacks, often of the improbable variety, to squeeze out a record barely above .500. 

Even though Patricia's record is worse, the Lions are just a different shade of the NFL's middle class. Whether it's 9-7 or 6-10, it's not good enough. In both cases, it feels like the Lions are light years away from contending for a Super Bowl. 

Third down

It ultimately didn't factor into the decision, but the Lions made an interesting decision to go for two, down eight, with six minutes remaining. 

And while Patricia referenced the mythological force of momentum in his postgame comments, he really was playing the odds, even though it's arguably a strategy better suited when playing on the road. Then again, Ford Field did feel like a hostile environment on Sunday

By going for two in a back-and-forth contest, especially one where your defense is struggling to get a stop, you are trying to remove an overtime coin flip from being a deciding factor. 

At the time of the attempt, the Lions offense was moving the ball well. They probably thought they had a good play call to convert. Obviously that didn't work out. But because they attempted it on the earlier of the two touchdowns they needed, they left themselves a backdoor opportunity to tie the game on the second score.

In the hypothetical scenario where they kick the extra point, then go for the win on a second touchdown in the closing seconds, there is no chance for redemption if the two-point attempt fails.  

More than the strategy, you should be bothered by the Lions' struggles to convert any two-point conversion. The team is 3 for 17 over the past five years, including 0 for 7 during Patricia's tenure. 

Fourth down

There are different types of backup quarterbacks. There's the savvy, but average veterans who can serve as a mentor to a young, franchise passer. There's the heir apparent, the future starter who still needs some time to develop. And then there's the stopgap, a capable short-term solution who can give you enough to win in a pinch, but doesn't project as a long-term starter. 

The Lions went through the first option with Shaun Hill from 2010-13, and haven't reached a point where they've needed to groom someone to replace Matthew Stafford, so the recent focus has been finding the stopgap, for the unenviable possibility injury would sideline the starter. 

And though the sample size is small, we've seen enough to suggest Jeff Driskel is a good fit for this role. In a time where mobility is a premium asset at the position, he brings a different dynamic to Detroit's offense, showing the ability to effectively scramble, as well as make many throws on the move. 

Ball security is the biggest concern. He threw a bad interception against the Bears in his first start, and has put a couple of other passes in spots for the defense to make plays, but the overall performance in his first start where the team game-planned around his skill set was a successful audition for a more permanent spot as Stafford's backup.

The only thing that changes the argument is if Stafford's back injuries have the Lions seriously considering looking for a long-term replacement in the upcoming draft.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers