OAKLAND -- Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia was once thought to be one of the best when it comes to scheming against opposing offenses.
This season has shown that this is no longer the case. How else do we explain the week-over-week reality that is Detroit’s defense? It can’t stop the run. It can’t stop the pass. It’s seeing the same things each week, with the same result almost every time.
“... It’s not even surprising what offenses do to us because we already know what they want to do, and we just ain’t stopping it right now,” cornerback Darius Slay said. “As a group, unit and everything. So we got to find a way to stop it. I don’t know what else we could do.
“We already know what they doing. We still can’t stop it.”
Considering Patricia’s reliance on varying schematic plans and his ability to foil opposing offenses -- which has come in brief chunks this season -- that might be the largest cause of concern.
Instead, it appears that the Lions are doing the same thing over and over again, hoping to see a different result. Take Oakland as an example. Detroit knew Josh Jacobs would run the ball a lot. And what did he do? He gained 120 yards on 28 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per rush, and wore down Detroit’s defense.
That has been Detroit's season. Bleed yards everywhere, with five of Detroit’s eight opponents gaining 400 yards or more against the Lions.
“We just got to figure out a way how to put all this stuff together, man,” Slay said. “We got a great team. We got all the right pieces, but it just ain’t sticking together. I don’t know, we might be putting the pieces to the puzzle in the wrong spot.”
The pieces are still jumbled, and the puzzle, at the moment, appears to be broken. That’s on Patricia and his staff, more than anyone else, to figure out. It’s why he was hired -- and why the Lions' defensive struggles have been surprising.
Teams are gashing them on the ground, allowing 135.8 yards per game and 4.74 yards per carry. Every team but the Giants has gained more than 100 yards on the ground against Detroit and averaged at least 4.23 yards per carry. It was a problem Patricia appeared to fix last season after the trade for Damon Harrison Sr., when the Lions held opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing in five of the last nine games of the season.
As bad as the run has been, the pass defense has, somehow, been worse. Detroit is No. 30 in the league in passing yards allowed (288.4) and No. 25 in yards per attempt (7.37). The Lions aren’t intercepting passes, and the team’s 14 sacks are tied for No. 27 in the league.
Using ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate, the Lions beat their blocks within 2.5 seconds only 24.7% of the time -- the worst rate in the league and far beyond the league average of 43.4%.
This number would be more understandable if the Lions continued with their non-blitzing ways. Patricia, for a while, was sending only three-man fronts and dropping eight in coverage. The past three weeks that has changed, as Detroit blitzed Kirk Cousins on 35.3% of dropbacks (no sacks), Daniel Jones on 17.8% of dropbacks (three sacks) and Derek Carr 25% of the time (one sack).
But they aren’t getting home nearly enough, despite going against Patricia’s typical anti-blitz tendency.
Detroit is giving quarterbacks more time in the pocket and more time to throw than any other team in the league: an average of 2.77 seconds in the pocket, along with an average of 3.05 seconds to throw. That's causing havoc all over the field for Detroit’s defenders.
The Lions are primarily a zone coverage team, leaving defensive backs and even linebackers in almost impossible positions because eventually, no matter how good of a corner or safety you are, coverage will break down if you’re forced to defend for that long.
It has been noticeable since the Lions took their bye in Week 5. In the first four games of the season, including against Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers, the Lions allowed opponents to complete 55% of their passes, the second-best rate in the league.
After the bye week, the secondary started to falter and is now allowing 66% of passes to be completed, for an average of 8.5 yards per attempt and 12 touchdowns the past four games. In the first four weeks, Detroit allowed just four passing touchdowns, including none to Mahomes.
Detroit’s defense as a whole is a sieve. Opponents gash through. The strategies the coaches come up with have failed, and the players haven’t pulled off the plays the coaches have been calling anyway.
“It’s a challenge, obviously,” defensive end Trey Flowers said. “Put in a lot of work, put in a lot of effort into these games, so when you don’t go out there and execute on Sundays, you know, that’s a challenge that doesn’t seem easy."
The consistency has to be about more than the players, though. It’s the entire organization. The hallmark of Patricia’s tenure a season-and-a-half in has been inconsistency. His teams have won games in back-to-back weeks just once. They’ve lost three games in a row twice -- between Weeks 8 and 10 last season (losses to Seattle, Minnesota and Chicago that took them from 3-3 to 3-6) and Weeks 4 and 7 this season (dropping games against Kansas City, Green Bay and Minnesota).
“To be good at football, you have to be consistent,” Flowers said.
That might, more than anything else, explain why Detroit hasn’t been all that good since Patricia arrived. Inconsistency has been a hallmark under Patricia more than anything else he has done in his tenure.