ALLEN PARK, Mich. — A month ago, the Detroit Lions were in a bad spot defensively. Heading into the team’s off week, they couldn’t stop the run. They struggled to stop the pass. Communication and trust were issues. It looked, frankly, like a lot of Matt Patricia’s defenses his first two seasons in Detroit.
Then the Lions had a week off. Patricia and his staff looked at what worked, what didn’t and how they could try and fix a defense appearing broken in so many different ways.
Two weeks in, it might have worked. The Lions have won two in a row — although those wins came against Jacksonville (1-6) and Atlanta (2-6). As important as winning was, though, was largely how the defense played.
“Everybody doing their damn job,” linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “That’s the thing, everybody doing their damn job. We know we’re a damn-good defense so we just knew if everybody do their job and make things one-dimensional, we have a good chance at winning ball games.
“And that’s what we’re starting to do.”
While some of that might sound simple, there is a little bit more complexity and nuance to Detroit’s defensive resurgence as well. Communication and trust — areas safety Duron Harmon pointed to during the team’s first month of the season as defensive issues – have been fixed. That’s allowed players to work more freely and more comfortably.
“Everyone is talking a lot more on the field,” cornerback Jeff Okudah said. “Everyone is kind of, just kind of helping each other, well, if I see something, I can communicate that to the front seven. If the front seven sees something, they can communicate that to the back end of the defense.
“So everyone getting on the same page has been really big, and really everyone just believing in the plan that we have set out.”
That started with the defensive front. The run Detroit couldn’t stop has been shuttered the past two weeks –- the 110 yards combined given up to Jacksonville and Atlanta is less than the Lions’ yardage allowed during losses to Chicago (149), Green Bay (259) and New Orleans (164). For the first time all season, the Lions also gave up less than three yards per carry on the ground in each of the past two weeks after allowing 3.9 yards per carry in all of their first four games.
“Definitely stopping the run more,” linebacker Jamie Collins said. “It starts there. It always starts with stopping the run. We’ve definitely been doing that. Been doing that the last couple of weeks. We talked about this last time, in order for us to get those turnovers, we have to stop the run and that’s what we’ve been doing, we’ve been stopping the run.
“So now we can really get after the quarterback and that’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks and it’s been working for us.”
Detroit’s ability to put opposing offenses in adverse situations on second-and-third downs has helped the pass rush, which has led to more pressure (34 percent of dropbacks against Jacksonville and 29.5 percent against Atlanta) than the Lions had gotten at any other point this season.
“You look at the last two weeks, we haven’t come up with some radical new scheme,” defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said. “We’ve gotten better at what we do, is what we’ve done.”
While it hasn’t been a radical shift, there has been movement in what Detroit has done. Playing — and moving around safeties Jayron Kearse and Tracy Walker — has helped offer different looks to opposing offenses because of their unique skills, Kearse as a big-bodied safety and Walker as an all-around threat including as a pass-rusher.
Detroit also has rushed the passer from different spots even when it hasn’t been blitzing, sending Walker on safety blitzes, as well as linebacker Jarrad Davis. The Lions also have received improved interior rush from Danny Shelton, who had a 10 percent pass rush win rate against both the Jaguars and Falcons after three straight games not winning a single rep, and Nick Williams, who had a 13.3 percent pass rush win rate against Atlanta after not winning a rep in his last three games.
But perhaps the biggest evolution has come in coverage.
Initially it could have been viewed as a one-week fluke, what the Lions did against Jacksonville. The Lions ran 60.9 percent zone in that game — more than any other game in Patricia’s tenure. Even with Undlin calling the defense, it’s still in Patricia’s style and if it had been a one-off, that would have been almost expected.
Then last week against Atlanta, the Lions went 50 percent man and 50 percent zone, playing less man-to-man than any game the first month of the season. While it’s unclear whether or not this change to a more unpredictable defense will be permanent, it does show one thing.
The Lions defense is, at the very least, evolving.
“Through the years, I’ve probably run all different types of coverages,” Patricia said. “I think you always try to do the best of whatever is working for you, maybe that particular week, that particular game plan or maybe with the different units that you have out there.
“We played it all. Our playbook is pretty thick, probably have just about every coverage I think you can think of in there. It’s really just trying to do what we think is best that week, from that standpoint.”
Patricia has been saying variations of the last sentence, both offensively and defensively, since he arrived in Detroit in 2018. For the first time, though, it might truly be taking hold.
And after Sunday, there will be more reinforcements heading into Minnesota. The Lions traded for pass-rusher Everson Griffen, who Detroit had to scheme against for nine seasons when he was in Minnesota. He adds another layer of pass rush along with Trey Flowers and the emerging Romeo Okwara, who leads Detroit with four sacks and has become a problem for opposing offenses in one-on-one situations the past two weeks.
Griffen gives Detroit, at worst, a third defensive end who can spell Okwara and Flowers and has a presence as a proven pass rusher. Even in a rotational role in Dallas he had 2.5 sacks in seven games and had a pass rush win rate of 10 percent or higher in each of his last three games.
That should only give Patricia and Undlin more to work with as they continue to figure out ways to make Detroit’s defense what they hoped it would be instead of what it was the first month of the season.