ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Two and a half years ago, the Detroit Lions hired a man considered a defensive guru to help take the team from perennially mediocre to a consistent contender, to not only make the playoffs occasionally but win playoff games too.
Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme and the combined knowledge he and general manager Bob Quinn provided were supposed to take Detroit places previous head coach Jim Caldwell did not.
Thirty-six games into Patricia’s tenure, that hasn’t happened. It’s due in large part to the side of the ball Patricia knows so well: defense. The Lions (1-3) are once again near the bottom of the league in many major defensive categories, including yards per game (405.0, No. 28), yards per play (6.16, No. 26), rushing yards per game (170.3, No. 32) and yards per rush (5.16, No. 29).
“We have to do a better job [against] the run ... play with better fundamentals and technique, and just be consistent,” Patricia said. “I mean, that’s the biggest thing for us right now. We have some good run plays on tape and just unfortunately too many bad ones.”
Detroit is allowing too many first downs (27.3, No. 31) and isn’t getting to the quarterback enough when opponents do pass, sacking the QB on just 4% of passing attempts. According to Football Outsiders, the Lions have the third-worst defensive DVOA in the NFL at 10.8%, a measure of a team’s efficiency.
These are continuing trends from last year, when the Lions gave up 400.4 yards and 284.4 passing yards per game and were last in the league in interception percentage (1.1) and next to last in sack percentage (4.6).
So how did Detroit get to this point? Shouldn’t the defense be better? The short answer is yes, the Lions should be much better defensively. Detroit has more than $87 million in cap space tied to the defense in 2020 (No. 12 in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information), and Quinn has invested major free-agent capital (Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins, Desmond Trufant, Justin Coleman) and traded for safety Duron Harmon over the past two seasons.
Yet it’s more than that. It’s a layered explanation as to why Detroit has tried but largely failed to build a strong defense.
Give Quinn credit for trying. Sort of. Defense has been a priority during the first three rounds of the draft since he took over in 2016.
In every draft, Quinn has taken at least one defender in the first three rounds. In three of his five drafts, he’s taken two. His 2016 second-round selection, defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, had five sacks in four seasons with Detroit. He started at least five games every season but never had more than six quarterback hits or two sacks a year. He’s now with the Los Angeles Rams.
In 2017, Quinn spent the team’s first- and second-round picks on defenders -- linebacker Jarrad Davis and cornerback Teez Tabor. Tabor was a complete miss. He started five games for the Lions and never intercepted or broke up a pass. Quinn boasted he scouted Tabor more than any other player that year. The big knock on him from critics was his speed -- an issue that routinely showed up whenever he was on the field.
Davis is everything the club could want in the locker room and for hard work. His play hasn’t matched up. The Lions declined his fifth-year option and he’s become more of a role player, appearing in 42% of defensive snaps in 2020 -- including less than 30% of snaps in each of the last two games.
Quinn's 2018 third-round pick, Tracy Walker, has been his best early defensive pick. Walker is in his second year starting at safety and has 13 career pass breakups. This was a good find.
His four combined defensive picks the past two years are still in question. The Lions took linebacker Jahlani Tavai (second round) and safety Will Harris (third round) in 2019. Tavai has been used more this year than last year, playing 65% of defensive snaps in 2020, but he played sparingly against the Saints. Harris has played 52% of snaps on defense this year. This year’s No. 3 overall pick, cornerback Jeff Okudah, has shown flashes of the player the Lions hope he can become but with expected inconsistencies. The team’s third-round pick, edge rusher Julian Okwara, has been a nonfactor.
It’s too early to judge those four picks, but in understanding the Lions’ lack of effectiveness and playmaking, missing on drafted players on every level of the defense is a place to start.
Lack of attention to the middle of the defense
One of the chronic issues is how the Lions have continually missed in the middle of the defensive line.
In 2018, Detroit traded for Damon Harrison -- a high-caliber run-stopper -- which was a good move for the Lions at the time. He shored up their run defense for the second half of the year. The Lions then gave Harrison an extension, and his play dipped in 2019. The Lions released Harrison -- less than a year after his extension -- this offseason. It left them with a hole stopping the run and still without a consistent interior pass rush.
The Lions drafted Da’Shawn Hand in the fourth round in 2018, and he looked to be a find. But he’s been injured much of the past two seasons. Ricky Jean Francois started 11 games at tackle for the Lions in 2018 and had two sacks in what was the last year of his career. The Lions signed Mike Daniels last season -- and he was injured most of the year.
In 2020, the Lions reloaded their defensive line, signing Danny Shelton to replace Harrison as a run-stopper and signing Nick Williams as a player they hoped could help the pass rush after a six-sack season with Chicago last year.
In three games, Williams has no sacks and a pass rush win rate of 7.7%, below the league average for defensive tackles.
While it’s more than just the defensive tackles, the Lions’ pass rush win rate is by far the worst in the NFL at 21.3% (next closest are the Giants, at 32.2%), and the team’s run stop win rate of 28.1% is No. 26 in the NFL, another indictment of a subpar middle of the defensive line.
“When teams are running the ball on you, the opportunities to rush the passer end up being a lot less than they would be if you were stopping it,” defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said. “That would be my first go. Obviously, we can get better on a couple different things, that being one of them. But definitely, I think we all know that we’ve got to create some more pressure on the quarterback.”
Lack of pressure leads to problems
The lack of pressure, which is part schematic, part personnel failure and part Detroit’s inability to stop the run, leads to problems with the multiple scheme the Lions are continually trying to use. Without being able to pressure opposing quarterbacks, playing man defense is going to lead to longer coverage times for defensive backs and, eventually, open receivers.
Against a zone, if the pass rush can’t win, any quarterback can shred the defense. Combined with the lowest pass rush win rate in the league, Detroit has played more man defense (71.3%) than any other team in the NFL.
The Lions have actually been OK at times -- a 59.3% completion rate -- but they’ve allowed eight touchdowns. Detroit has played the least amount of zone in the NFL (28.7%) and has largely been in Cover 3. Detroit has allowed 74.3% of those passes to be completed against it (ninth worst in the league), yet has allowed only one touchdown against zone and an opposing QBR of 51.3, seventh best in the league.
So there are signs of potential, but it hasn’t been nearly enough when combined with the lack of pressure and inability to stop the run. That’s been a Patricia defensive problem.
Flashes of brilliance and better-than-competent efforts against the Patriots in 2018, the Chiefs last season and the Cardinals this year often get lost in the muck of poor performances. The inability to adjust and the same issues keep haunting Detroit’s defense over and over again.