Matt Patricia's job might depend on lifting Lions' sagging defense
It's been a while, six season to be exact, since anyone could say the Detroit Lions have fielded a good defense. But in the two years Matt Patricia has been coach, the unit has been downright awful.
The numbers from last season paint a pretty clear picture. The team ranked 31st in yardage allowed, 26th in points surrendered, 27th in passer rating against, 28th in third-down conversion rate and 24th in takeaways.
Following the hire of Patrica, the Lions have been revamping their defense on two fronts, schematic and cultural, but have yet to see positive results.
The initial wave of changes came closer to the line of scrimmage. While Patricia's aim is to be schematically flexible, the team emphasized moving away from its attacking, penetrating defensive front to one more focused on controlling gaps and stopping the run. And at linebacker, the team has gotten bigger, adding 250-plus pounders like Christian Jones and Jahlani Tavai.
The cultural changes have picked up in the past year. Behind the scenes, there was concerns about safety Quandre Diggs' work ethic and his influence on younger teammates, so the team unceremoniously traded him to Seattle for a fifth-round draft pick in the middle of last season. Of course that move started a chain reaction that led to Detroit shipping three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay to Philadelphia this offseason.
If you're thinking it's difficult to improve when you're parting ways with some of your top talent, you're not wrong, but the Lions have made it clear if anyone isn't rowing the boat in the same direction, they're expendable.
That said, with Patricia firmly on the hot seat to open this season, his ability to get Detroit's defense to perform at a higher level likely will be the key to saving his job. To facilitate that improvement, he brought in first-year coordinator Cory Undlin, a former New England colleague who has branched out since departing the Patriots in 2004, working for four different franchises during that time.
While there will be significant philosophical overlap with the reunited duo, Undlin's experience working under different coaches and schemes outside the sphere of Bill Belichick should add a much-needed fresh perspective to the playbook and game-planning.
But from a personnel standpoint, the Lions are leaning hard into Patricia's New England roots, adding three more former Patriots this offseason, signing linebacker Jamie Collins and nose tackle Danny Shelton, while swinging a trade for safety Duron Harmon. All three will either start or see significant snaps, joining defensive end Trey Flowers and nickelback Justin Coleman in the group with ties to Patricia's former longtime employer.
There's nothing wrong with familiarity, and given the way the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has altered the landscape of this offseason, those players' experience in the scheme should be invaluable when you factor in how little practice time teams will have prior to the start of the regular season.
Interestingly, even after trading Diggs and Slay, Detroit's secondary is shaping up to be a strength. In free agency, the team landed Desmond Trufant, a former first-rounder and Pro Bowler who had a career-high four interceptions in just nine games in 2019. He'll be paired with Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 pick in the draft who has the skill set and demeanor to start immediately. Along with Coleman, Tracy Walker and Harmon — who has a better track record in coverage compared to Diggs — the Lions are set up nicely in the back end.
Yet defense is the marriage of rush and coverage, and if only one side is holding up its end of the bargain, the relationship will crumble quickly. And Detroit's ability to get after the passer continues be cause for concern.
The offseason moves up front were modest. The team has thus far passed on big names on the market such as Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler and Everson Griffen, in favor of more familiar or under-the-radar additions like Collins and defensive tackle Nick Williams. In the draft, the Lions waited until the third round before snagging Julian Okwara, a edge rusher with a decent ceiling but also coming off a season-ending broken leg.
Detroit is going to need a lot to go well, including some much-needed durability with oft-injured defensive tackle Da'Shawn Hand, if they're going to disrupt the pocket enough to be effective enough overall.
If they fall short with that goal, we will be in for another cycle of schematic and cultural overhaul a year from now.