Teryl Austin was a fine coordinator for the Detroit Lions. When he was given a lot of talent, he absolutely knew how to utilize it. You’d think a guy like Ndamukong Suh would essentially do his job for him, but the Dolphins haven’t finished in the top half of the league in defensive DVOA since Suh took his talents to Miami. Austin took a talented roster in 2014 and immediately transformed it into a top five unit.
But when he didn’t have that set of talent, he struggled. He couldn’t seem to get players that specialized in one thing and utilize that specialty to its maximum potential. The easy example is Kyle Van Noy, a guy who came out of college with a skill-set prototypical for a pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker. Austin tried to fit that square peg into a 4-3 round hole. In 30 games with the Lions, Van Noy had 1.0 sack. Everyone who scouted the guy knew that his pass-rushing ability was Van Noy’s greatest asset, yet Austin couldn’t unlock it.
That’s about to change for the Detroit Lions. Matt Patricia will become the head coach, and his specialty seems to be his versatility. Last week, Hank Gola of the New York Daily News wrote a fantastic piece on how multifaceted Matt Patricia’s defense is, and it’s absolutely worth your time.
While Austin was married to his 4-3 system that was predicated on (ideally) generating pressure with just his front four, Patricia doesn’t have a “system.” The scheme is fully dependent on the personnel.
They were primarily a 3-4, two-gapping defense when they had big guys such as Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren up front, but they eventually transitioned into more of a 4-3 and then back into a combination of both.
Former NFL safety and current analyst at ESPN Matt Bowen describes it perfectly. “They cater their game plan and their defensive scheme to fit the personnel. It’s not, ‘this is my scheme, you play it.’ No. It’s, ‘You own the scheme. Let’s put you in the best position to play great football.’”
And we’ve seen this play out with Van Noy. Let’s not pretend Van Noy is now an all-star player, after all, he still has an overall PFF grade of just 47.8, and he may not have even been a starter had it not been for some injuries. But Patricia has put Van Noy is scenarios he can win, and the former Lions linebacker has made more plays in his 20 games with the Patriots than he ever did in Detroit. He has 6.5 sacks with New England, and he tallied his first forced fumble and interception with the Patriots.
But enough about Van Noy, let’s go back to what we can expect from Patricia. Not only is he an expert at scheming around his own talent base, but he’ll change what they do week-to-week in order to sterilize the opposing offense.
Each week, Patricia identifies two players who they want to take out of the game to both force the quarterback to go somewhere else and to make him uncomfortable.
“Whoever Patricia wants to take out of the game, they’ll take out of the game,” Bowen said. “They’ll make you go someplace else with the ball and they’ll use their personnel to get that done.”
Perhaps the most promising thing about Patricia is his ability to weather the injury bug. Obviously the Patriots’ personnel team deserves credit for building depth, but even when the talent level is low, Patricia can make something out of nothing. This season, much has been made about New England’s drastic defensive turnaround. After giving up 128 points in the first four games, the Patriots only allowed 168 points in the next 12. And they did so without some of their best players.
They lost All-Pro linebacker Dont’a Hightower after Game 7. Defensive tackle Alan Branch has missed the past month and a half. Cornerback Eric Rowe missed half the season. Their defense is currently led by guys like Eric Lee, Kyle Van Noy, Trey Flowers, and Elandon Roberts—all four starters that had less than 10 career starts to their name before the 2017 season.
So how does Patricia do it? Again, it goes back to his philosophy of versatility and adaptability. Patricia demands that his players be flexible, not just learning their own responsibilities, but that of the people around him. “He wants his players to understand each role,” Giants announcer and former player Carl Banks told Gola. “A linebacker will probably have to know every position in back of him and in front of him with the exception of a nose guard.”
And by learning every position, it makes them more prepared to take over said position in the case of injury. “As a player, you will be mentally sharp because you have no choice,” an unidentified former coach told the New York Daily News. “It creates competition and it protects the team from injury because they have options.”
The Lions haven’t seen a defense like that in some time. Instead, a player like Haloti Ngata or Ezekiel Ansah will go down with injury, and the defense will fall apart. The Lions could not stop the run in 2017 once Ngata was placed on injured reserve. Detroit hasn’t found an effective pass-rushers since Ansah has battled injuries over the past two season.
Patricia’s malleable, multifaceted defense is just what the doctor ordered in Detroit. The Lions haven’t finished with a top-10 scoring defense since Suh walked out of the building—something Patricia has done in every year as Patriots defensive coordinator, despite the high turnover rate in talent. The question is whether Patricia can do what every other Patriots assistant has failed to do: recreate his magic outside of New England.