Wojo: If Matt Patricia can’t fix the Lions’ abysmal defense, he can’t stay

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Detroit — Nothing ever gets fixed, or stays fixed. The only thing Matt Patricia’s defense can fix these days is the other team’s struggling quarterback.

It’s gotten so bad that when the Lions grabbed a quick 14-0 lead over the Saints Sunday, no one in the Ford Field stands believed they’d win. OK, that’s a trick statement. No one was in the Ford Field stands, but if fans were allowed, they’d have seen another miserable collapse coming, just as the opponent always sees it coming.

Even by the Lions’ minimal defensive standards, this was an awful effort, and don’t let the final margin fool you. The 35-29 loss to New Orleans was pretty much sealed when the Saints and 41-year-old quarterback Drew Brees tallied touchdowns on five consecutive possessions. The Lions are 1-3 and have lost 12 of their last 13 under Patricia. One quarter of the way through the season, they might have one-quarter of a team.

The bye week is next for the Lions, and if it became bye-bye week for Patricia, nobody could argue. Firings can be punitive or strategic or simply an admission there’s no reason to wait any longer. I still expect ownership to ride out the pandemic season and make a change at the end, barring an unforeseen turnaround.

Asked if he was concerned about his job security, Patricia calmly said he’d prefer to focus on the Saints. Pressed on why people should still believe in him as a coach, he stuck to the script.

“I mean that’s a hard question,” Patricia said. “Let’s just give them credit for this game. They played extremely well and I know we’ve got a lot of work to do. Certainly, I think when I came to Detroit there was a lot of work to do, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Cupboard wasn’t bare 

That’s a terribly disingenuous answer, to suggest he’s been hampered by the state of the team he inherited. That team went 9-7 under Jim Caldwell, and even if it was ready to be rebuilt, legitimate NFL rebuilds show some improvement in two-and-a-half years. The Lions show none, ranking near the bottom of the league in virtually every defensive category, and are way too fickle on offense.

The defense doesn’t look salvageable, which means Patricia isn’t salvageable. No, GM Bob Quinn hasn’t stocked the roster with defensive talent, but these are players Patricia supposedly wanted, former Patriots who understood his scheme. What is there to understand? The Lions can’t rush the quarterback effectively, can’t blanket receivers and are frighteningly feeble against the run.

The Saints came in reeling at 1-2 and were missing six starters due to injury, including star receiver Michael Thomas. Brees supposedly was on his last legs and last arm, but there’s a lesson here. If people are gonna suggest an aging star is done, they’d better make sure he’s not about to face the Lions.

Brees toyed with them, dropping perfectly placed passes with uncanny timing. Whether by air or by land — running back Alvin Kamara was superb, as usual — the Saints had their way against the Lions’ back-pedaling defense.

In all three losses this season, the Lions built double-digit leads, and then the opposing quarterback — Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and now Brees — carved them up. The Lions intercepted Arizona’s Kyler Murray three times last week to stir a little hope, and it was gone in a predictable blur.

The Saints marched 75, 80, 80, 49 and 75 yards for touchdowns on five straight possessions to turn the 14-0 deficit into a 35-14 lead. Brees completed 19 of 25 passes for 246 yards, and you could see why he prefers to dissect with short throws. His arm is more popgun than cannon and he has the brilliant Kamara, who ran for 83 yards and added 36 yards receiving. The Saints piled up 392 total yards and converted 10 of 14 third downs.

“It’s the NFL, it’s a grown-man’s league,” said linebacker Reggie Ragland, another veteran brought in to help shore things up. “We have to finish in these tough situations. Like I said, we got the pieces, we got the coach, we just have to go play, man.”

The Lions are far from fundamentally sound, which speaks to coaching, of course. Players aren’t pinning it on Patricia, but they’re not really pinning it on anything. That puts extra pressure on the offense, although it doesn’t excuse some of the ridiculous mistakes. Matthew Stafford was hot early, stumbled in the middle and kept flinging to the end.

Stafford annoyed

Stafford has shown more frustration on the field, admittedly mad at himself at times. He still holds the ball too long trying to make a play and takes critical sacks. His biggest gaffe Sunday was a horrible throw on first down from the Saints’ 11 when the score was 14-14 in the second quarter. He left it short of tight end T.J. Hockenson, and cornerback Patrick Robinson picked it off.

Stafford completed 17 of 31 for 206 yards and again looked edgy and impatient, forcing throws, which is how the whole team looks. Without an identity to lean on, the Lions are a hodge-podge of players trying to figure out their roles.

It’s especially true on defense, which has no stars or anyone that can scare an opponent, and it’s almost as if Patricia wants it that way. He and Quinn have replaced outsized talents instead of making them fit. Veteran free-agents were brought in to buy in, and we’re still waiting.

Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and others were supposed to bring savvy, but here’s an idea: Why doesn’t Patricia supply the savvy and make it work with more dynamic athletes? Or, why can’t he figure out what a player does best and let him loose to do it? It’s almost as if Patricia doesn’t want individual stars to overshadow his beloved scheme.

The No. 3 overall pick, cornerback Jeff Okudah, isn’t making an immediate impact, and you wonder if the Lions’ puny pass rush is a factor. Do they lack talent, or is Patricia is too reluctant to blitz and put players in positions to make plays?

I asked if he’s still searching for roles for certain players and his answer included a bunch of generic words wrapped around “consistency.” Sure, consistency is a goal of any defense. So is explosiveness. And unpredictability. And adjustment.

Patricia loves his man-to-man coverage, and although he started mixing in some zone, opponents sure seem to know what’s coming.

“It’s a man-to-man team by nature,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They’ll play some Cover 2, they’ll change it up on you, and we had some big plays in the man coverage.”

In other words, the Saints feasted on Patricia’s strategic staple. Payton and Brees are as shrewd as they come, so that’s not a surprise. The sad truth is, it’s not remotely a surprise when the Lions’ supposed guru is helpless to match it. Patricia goes as his defense goes, and at this rate, both are destined to go.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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