Rogers: Who are the Lions? Without an identity, it’s hard to tell

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

When the Detroit Lions played the Minnesota Vikings last week, you knew exactly what the opponent was going to do. 

Defensively, the Vikings bring a lot of extra pressure, often stressing an offensive line up the middle. And while that has been less effective this year as the team has gone through a significant roster turnover, it’s still the calling card of coach Mike Zimmer during his time with the Vikings. 

And on offense, the Vikings are built around the run. No matter what you do defensively, they’re going to try to shove the ball down your throat with star running back Dalvin Cook. Everything else within the offense is built around that, including a potent downfield attack out of play-action. 

The Lions tried to make schematic adjustments to disrupt what the Vikings wanted to do, leaning on heavier personnel groupings and putting eight or more defenders in the box on 63.6% of Cook’s carries. In fact, no starting running back saw a greater percentage of stacked boxes during last week’s games. 

And it didn’t matter. The undeterred Vikings ran the ball with ease, racking up 275 yards on the day. That’s the most the Lions had surrendered in a game in more than a decade. 

And while we watched the Vikings offense impose its will on Detroit’s defense, it re-raised the question, what is the Lions’ identity? The most recent time Lions coach Matt Patricia described what he wanted it to be was in late September. 

“I think for us, we’re just trying to make sure that we’re a tough football team and we have that defined by certain things we do during the game,” Patricia said. “We want to be competitive. We’d like to be a smart football team, which is something we’re still working on from that standpoint and eliminating some of the bad stuff that happens out on the field.

“…Every team is different, every year now in the NFL, and that’s true,” Patricia said. “There’s changeover every year, and we’ve had a lot of changeover in the last couple years, and hopefully we have a little bit of a foundation now that we can build on and these guys can start to grow and develop together as a team and push forward and kind of cultivate all of that that we talk about, but hard-working is probably my No. 1 thing that I think is important for our team, is just every single day coming in, work hard, get better and improve and keep that blue-collar mentality. I think that’s really what resonates with me and what I think is so important to this area.”

OK, well no one should be questioning the team’s work ethic or toughness. The Lions practice hard and with purpose, while being led by a quarterback who has played through a number of injuries throughout his career. But hard work and toughness are standard fare throughout the league — it comes with playing the game of football at the highest level. The Lions aren’t transcendent in this regard. 

The same can be said with being competitive, another trait Patricia listed. You don’t make or stick at this level lacking competitiveness. 

That leaves us with smart, which from a football perspective means being assignment sound, having good situational awareness and avoiding penalties. Clearly the Lions have plenty of room for improvement here, notably highlighted by their recent inability to field enough players on multiple occasions. But that doesn’t offer any more insight as to what this team’s identity might be. 

When you scour the statistics, the Lions’ identity is even more unclear. On offense, they don’t run the ball well and the aggressive downfield passing attack from a year ago was left in 2019. 

Against the Vikings, the Lions opened up the game with a downfield shot, but mostly stuck to short, check-down throws the rest of the way. As Stafford and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell explained, deep shots were built into the game plan, but the Lions were only able to take what the defense gave them. 

“They had a nice game plan,” Bevell said. “They knew their weaknesses and where the new guys were and they knew how to protect them. It wasn’t like we didn’t have opportunities that we were trying to take them. I really thought Matthew did a great job. He was looking down the field for the opportunities that we had. If they were there, he was able to take ’em, and if he wasn’t, he checked it down. There was one drive, in particular, he took three check downs in a row, underneath, and kept us moving.

“The defense has a say a lot of times in where the ball is going to go,” Bevell continued. “Obviously, we have a plan to go in a certain direction, to a certain guy and those types of things involved in the game plan, but the defense also has a say in that.”

That’s what separates the Lions and Vikings, at least offensively. The Vikings imposed their will, while the Lions took what was given to them. Of course, imposing your will on offense is easier when you can run the ball. The concept is built around physical domination. 

Defensively, the Lions aren’t able to impose their will, either. They can’t stop the run, can’t slow the pass, are one of the league’s worst teams getting off the field on third down and are on track to be bottom-10 in turnovers for the third straight season of Patricia’s tenure. 

So as it turns out, the Lions’ identity is they have no identity. In three years under Patricia, they have yet to establish one thing they do consistently well on either offense or defense. That’s a big reason why the team is headed for a third consecutive last-place finish in the division.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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