When the Detroit Lions hired Matt Patricia to be their head coach after the 2017 season, they probably expected the actual-rocket-scientist and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator from the Patriots to bring with him a stifling defense.
A year and a half into the Patricia era, that is clearly not the case. Last year, the Lions defense ranked 27th in defensive DVOA, and specifically ranked 31st against the pass. Things improved in the last quarter of the year, which led some to believe the poor performance was due to the Lions adapting from a strict Wide 9 defense to Patricia’s multiple front defense that he had run in New England.
But this year does not support that theory. Detroit is currently 25th in DVOA, and their yardage totals are embarrassing. Only the Cardinals and the winless Bengals are giving up more yards per game; Detroit is also 24th in scoring defense, 28th in passing defense, and 27th in rushing defense.
And now they’ll be facing a Cowboys offense that ranks - wait for it - first in offensive DVOA, first in total yards, sixth in scoring, third in passing, and fifth in rushing. The easy takeaway here is that the Cowboys should be able to decimate this defense. But why is this defense so bad?
Many Lions fans have pointed to the play-calling of defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni (someone Dallas is no stranger to), and there have been calls for Patricia to take over calling the plays. While that won’t be happening according to Patricia, it’s clear that something has to change. As far as I can tell, the problems stem primarily from pass coverage.
First off, some things this defense does well. Trey Flowers, the big-ticket free agent signing from the offseason, leads the defense with five sacks and 10 QB hits, while Devon Kennard is close behind him with four sacks and nine QB hits. Detroit has also been very good at jarring the ball loose, with 12 forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries.
That’s it for the things they do well. The secondary was doing okay until the Lions made the head-scratching decision to trade away safety Quandre Diggs. This led to several players, including top cornerback Darius Slay, to publicly express their disappointment with the decision. The drop in morale, combined with the loss of talent, led to the secondary plummeting in production.
Slay has still been good, allowing only a 55.9% completion rate when targeted, but he’s questionable for Sunday’s game with a neck injury. Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin, however, have been liabilities in coverage. Between the two of them, they’re allowing a near 63% completion rate and have surrendered seven touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks have a 101.9 passer rating when targeting Coleman and a 105.2 passer rating when targeting Melvin.
More problematic than that is safety Tracy Walker, who replaced Diggs after the trade. While Walker has missed the last two games with a knee injury and is questionable for Sunday, he’s allowing nearly 69% of his targets to be completed and opposing quarterbacks have an impressive 118.6 passer rating when targeting Walker, who’s allowed three touchdowns. Often tasked with covering the middle of the field as a single-high safety, Walker is a player who can be exploited by Dak Prescott and this high flying offense if he suits up.
Because of this terrible secondary play, Detroit has been forced to get their linebackers more involved in coverage, which has cost them in the pass rush (Detroit currently ranks dead last in pass rush win rate). That’s been bad for Christian Jones and Jarrad Davis, both of whom were productive run-stoppers last year but are not cut out for heavy amounts of pass coverage.
Jones is allowing nearly 70% of his targets to be completed and a 105.3 passer rating against him, while Davis has been even worse: 80% completion rate and a 119.5 passer rating. Both linebackers have given up a touchdown pass, and the decision to get them more involved in the pass defense has backfired if anything.
Schematically, the Lions are very similar to the Dolphins, which makes sense considering that both head coaches come from the Bill Belichick School of Defense. But much like the Dolphins, the Lions don’t yet have the personnel to have success with the complex and varied style of defense their head coach wants to run.
All of their problems start with the secondary, and they’ve bled through to the rest of the defense. That creates a perfect opportunity for the Cowboys and Dak Prescott to slice through this defense on Sunday. The biggest question for Dallas will be if they can do so in the first quarter or if their slow start trend will continue.