Wojo: Is the Lions’ defense really as doomed as it looks?

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
 
| The Detroit News

Detroit — In the NFL, 0-2 should not be an inescapable pit. The season should not be over when it’s 12.5% over. Lots of football left, right?

And then we have the Lions. I’m not here to bury them (they do a decent job of that themselves). I’m here to help, as always. And after exhaustive research, I’ve identified two significant areas of concern.

Their defense makes an astonishing number of mistakes. And Matthew Stafford makes forced mistakes trying to compensate for the defense’s mistakes. One is fixable — Stafford has proven capable of bouncing back in tough times. The other? Sorry, there’s little evidence the defense can be fixed anytime soon, which means the Lions are teetering between dreary and dire, careening toward doom.

You can say it’s only two games, but it’s really 34 games under Matt Patricia. It’s the most-befuddling aspect of his regime, that his purported defensive expertise has been shattered. This Sunday they return to the scene of the grime, the place where the end began, and it might not be pretty. A year ago, the Lions rolled into Arizona and stomped to a 24-6 fourth-quarter lead against the Cardinals. And then rookie quarterback Kyler Murray got loose, scorching them in the fourth quarter with quick throws and quicker legs, forging a 27-27 tie that became a precursor.

Since then, Murray has gotten even better and the Cardinals (2-0) have one of the most-potent offenses in the league. Since then, the Lions have gotten downright abysmal, riding an 11-game losing streak and fielding the worst run defense in the league, by far. In losses to Chicago and Green Bay, they blew double-digit leads and have done so in four straight games dating to last season, a streak that had never happened in NFL history.

No help en route

There’s no fresh talent riding in to upgrade the mediocre personnel, so unless Patricia and defensive coordinator Cory Undlin make a dramatic adjustment, the Lions are destined for disaster. How about some aggressiveness? They’re tied for last in the league with zero forced turnovers. How about some pressure on the quarterback? The Lions have two sacks, after finishing 31st last season.

Not much has changed. How about a blitz? Or a stunt? Or maybe sneaking a 12th defender onto the field? The Lions are last in the league in pass-rush win rate at 19% (the percentage of times a pass rusher beats his block within 2.5 seconds). They blitz only 22% of the time, which ranks 24th.

Patricia sticks with his bend-but-don’t-break-until-it-really-matters philosophy because it worked in New England, and it worked for the second half of his first season there. But he’s so enamored with his scheme, it’s as if he assumes he can make it work by plugging in anyone. So GM Bob Quinn keeps going out and getting him a bunch of anyones, and no one stands out.

This isn’t just where former Patriots go to get paid, although there are enough — Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, Duron Harmon, all starters — to support those unflattering optics. The Lions also reportedly are interested in signing former Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard, 31, to boost the pass rush. Patricia craves a specific skillset, and in his hunt for bulkier linebackers and flexible players who can fit multiple roles, he has shown a shocking lack of flexibility.

His defenses never put a big emphasis on sacks and rely heavily on one-on-one coverage in the secondary. To me, that’s a strange disconnect. The less pressure you get on the quarterback, the more time a cornerback is required to cover a receiver. You know, someone like Green Bay’s Davante Adams, or on Sunday, Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins.

The Lions’ leading sacker last season was Devon Kennard (seven, tied with Flowers). He left for Arizona, where he’s been productive. The Lions’ biggest defensive acquisition was No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah, who started his first game last week and showed how difficult the transition is at cornerback. Especially when someone like Aaron Rodgers gets to stand in the pocket and make a turkey sandwich while looking for an open receiver.

Tunnel vision

I asked Patricia Thursday if sacks are a less-essential element of his defense by design, or a function of limited personnel. Naturally, it’s probably both.

“Obviously, we’re not good enough right now in the pass rush, and we need to do a better job of getting pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “Certainly, trying to manufacture pass rush is something that we know we need to do, mixing in different schemes and alignments and pressures and blitz packages and all that stuff. We’re certainly trying to do that and we’re trying to do it in a way that is smart, too.”

Coaches who rely heavily on scheme and analytics sometimes treat players like interchangeable pieces. Those outside the norm, either in ability or personality, don’t last long. See: Darius Slay, Damon Harrison, Quandre Diggs, A’Shawn Robinson. It’s fine for a coach to collect his type of players, but even the Patricia types have stumbled, from the New England guys to safety Tracy Walker, who started last season but has been displaced by Will Harris, who struggled mightily last week.

Could Kenny Golladay return and invigorate the offense, loosen up the running game and catch long passes? Yep, it’s possible. But if your best hope is to try to win games 38-35, you’re running out of hope, and already people are restless.

It got so bad in the 42-21 loss to Green Bay, the most ardent fans considered surrender.

“It’s getting real difficult,” actor Jeff Daniels said on the Dan Patrick show this week. “It’s hard to sit there leaning forward into the television set, when you know you’re gonna get your heart broken.”

Daniels lives in Chelsea and is a huge Detroit sports booster, and like most fans, it’s painful to consider bailing. Again, it seems early for such angst, but it’s late in the Quinntricia era to be dealing with the exact same issues, over and over.

Obviously, both their jobs are on the line. Patricia said he talks to owner Sheila Ford Hamp every week and calls their communication “outstanding.” Patricia’s simple message via the media never changes, and he rarely gets rattled. His ire flashed briefly when asked why his defense hasn’t been able to hold leads in the clutch, and he pointed to one historically big play in a Super Bowl victory with New England.

That was five years ago, and for a coach who doesn’t like to look back, it’s Patricia’s only comfortable view these days. When he looks ahead, does he see a light anywhere?

“I think you have to,” he said. “You know me, we’ve got to always try to get better. If you’re a person that walks around without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, then man, that’s probably not a good day.”

Not many good days around here. And if it continues like this, not many days left.

bwojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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