Allen Park — Lions coach Matt Patricia recalled Wednesday a clip of the Minnesota defense that he called one of his favorites.
In it, he said, inside linebacker Eric Kendricks turned to his teammate of five years Anthony Barr before a snap this season against Dallas. The linebacker pointed to himself, followed by another signal when deciding who is going rush Dak Prescott, as the quarterback and offensive line tried to decipher the oncoming blitz.
On the next play, Patricia noted, there were even more non-verbal cues between the longtime teammates.
Patricia seemed envious of those kinds of defensive quirks and more while studying the Vikings (8-4) this week.
Across the field on Sunday, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer — himself a former defensive specialist and first-time head coach when he took over in Minnesota in 2014 — has a defense worthy of emulating.
“That sort of stuff, those subtleties without huge amounts of communication, that takes a while to build that kind of trust, that confidence and things like that,” Patricia said. “When you have guys that have played together for a long time in the same system, there are little things that grow on the field from that standpoint, and little nuances that you see that really make things a lot more complex for offenses to try to defend against.”
If Patricia hopes to build that kind continuity in Detroit, at 9-18-1 with one quarter left in his second season, he may be in a race against the clock.
We don’t know how long Patricia will be allowed to build, but he’s already made headway in identifying pieces he believes can help: Trading for Damon Harrison last year and trading away Quandre Diggs this year; locking up Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman to multi-year deals this offseason; and extending Christian Jones this season.
In Minnesota, there have been no such shakeups lately. It’s the same annual standouts at every level: A line anchored by Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen; sturdy linebackers in Kendricks and Barr; and a back end led by Trae Waynes (Michigan State), Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith.
Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen is the lone new starter this season, returning to Minnesota where he spent his first four seasons before a one-year detour last year in Seattle.
The 11 defensive starters have combined for 50 years as the primary starter in their position for the Vikings, way past the norm in an NFL full of roster churn that values cheap rookies.
“Not in the NFL, that's not normal, but (that's) part of the reason they play so well,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “They've all been playing with each other and playing off each other for a long time, so they understand it.”
Contrastingly, Darius Slay, Tavon Wilson and A’Shawn Robinson are the only Lions defensive players who started a game in Detroit before the 2017 season.
In Minnesota, the cohesiveness has translated into one of the league’s gold standard defenses, though cracks are starting to show.
The Vikings are allowing 242.9 passing yards and 1.8 passing touchdowns per game, the most of the Zimmer era. Rhodes has struggled this season, including a 60-yard blow-by from Seattle’s David Moore this week on Monday Night Football. After spending the last three seasons in the top-4, the Vikings are No. 16 this season in total defensive yards allowed. It’s the worst in Zimmer’s last 12 seasons as coach, including six previous years as defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
It’s not just non-verbal cues that have helped Minnesota along the way, noted Patricia, who is 3-8-1 in his second season.
“When you’ve worked with guys for a long time, you can hear their voice in any crowd at any decibel at any level, which obviously defensively communication is the biggest thing,” he said. “It’s difficult. We have a couple of things that we try to do to combat that, but then they layer on top of what they already do.”
Meanwhile, after all the shakeups, the Lions’ defense is 29th league-wide this season at 398.1 yards per game. While the rising Minnesota has helped keep the Vikings into the playoff race, the Detroit offense has keyed the Lions' limited success.
Who knows if Patricia will get the chance to build that kind of cohesiveness in his defense? But his complimentary comments Wednesday sure suggest he’d like to give it a try.
“You really have to know the strengths and the weaknesses of the guys playing next to you,” Patricia said. “You may know that, ‘Hey, this guy right here is going to have this chance, this opportunity to make this play, and he may take that shot and I’m going to play off him over here,' because you’re just used to it at that point.
“It really becomes second nature.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.