Matt Patricia looks to scale back to help Lions defense play faster
By almost any measure, the Detroit Lions defense has been awful this season.
They're allowing more than 400 yards and 30 points per game, they're not effectively stopping the run and they're not pressuring the passer. They've forced four turnovers, but three came in one game, which not surprisingly was also their only win.
So after a bye week to self-scout the unit, Lions coach Matt Patricia believes the best course of action to get on track is to simplify things.
“From our first four games, taking a look at the bye week, there’s certainly some things that we saw that we need to improve on that hopefully we’ll get better at," Patricia said. "For the most part, I would say trying to do a little bit less overall would be good and try to get our guys to be able to play faster out on the field, that’s certainly something I think we can do, and then build as we go forward."
What exactly does doing less mean? Well, there's several way to look at it. One of the first might be paring down the number of defensive packages the team utilizes. Through four games, the team has rolled out 121 different lineup combinations.
Some of that is by necessity, such as injuries forcing adjustments. But some of it is simply Patricia's desire for game-specific multiplicity, which could be hampering chemistry and cohesion, particularly in a year where the team was robbed of thousands of offseason practice reps due to the COVID-19 pandemic moving the early portions of the program to a virtual environment.
"We've obviously got some new guys here," safety Duron Harmon said last week. "We got injuries, guys coming in and out, and it's never an excuse, but we need to get healthy and get around each other more and lean on each other more and trust each other more so that when this guy says he's going to be in this position, we trust that he's going to be in there so that everybody is doing their job and nobody is trying to overcompensate because, 'Eh, I don't know if he's going to be here. Let me try to do something else.' I think in the end, we just have to trust each other more."
How much does continuity with personnel matter? Well, the three teams with the fewest lineup combinations — Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Tennessee — all happen to be top-10 scoring defenses.
Schematically, one might look at the numbers and wonder how the Lions could further simplify things at that level? At 19.9%, they're already among the least-frequent blitzing units in the NFL. Additionally, in the back end, they play more man coverage than anyone, at 60%, with 90% of those reps being played with a single-high safety.
If anything, the team could probably afford to be less predictable within their scheme and play-calling. But regardless of how they do it, Patricia's ultimate goal is to get his players thinking less so they can react more quickly.
"I feel like that's the main thing: If you're not thinking out there and you're just reacting, well, that's the best play," safety Tracy Walker said. "When you're out there thinking, you're going to play a step slower. I feel like I understand where he's coming from that in that aspect. He just wants everybody to go out there and play fast and play hard."
And if the team's early-week practices have been any indication, the subtle changes coming down from up top are showing up on the field.
"Yeah, we've done a really good job this week," defensive end Romeo Okwara said. "Everyone has come to practice this week with great energy. We look a lot faster. I'm sure the bye week was much-needed, helped a lot. Yeah, everyone is moving fast on the field. We've had really good practices the past two days, so I think we're seeing that."
If Detroit's defense is ever to get on track in 2020, now would be the time. Starting this Sunday against Jacksonville, the team will see a stretch of eight opponents where seven rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring, including four in the bottom-10.