Last week Ryan Mathews and I had a debate on the five reasons the Lions would or wouldn’t make the playoffs. In my portion of things, I mentioned that I believe the Lions defense is primed to operate in a fashion that’s nothing like its previous incarnations.
The reason I feel this way is because of Matt Patricia and where Matt Patricia is coming from. When the Lions hired Bob Quinn after the 2015 season, I loathed the very mention of “The Patriot Way.” To me, it was a false equivalency that was bound to disappoint fans when they assumed the Lions were about to become a dynasty.
I have such a different feeling about it now, and that’s mostly because Pat’s Pulpit’s Brian Phillips. What Brian showed me is that “The Patriot Way” is just a mantra that is more about on-the-field play and team building. It’s not “Bill Belichick likes to draft short, white receivers, so, naturally, Bob Quinn will do that in Detroit.”
What it’s really about is “Do Your Job.” You’ve probably seen this phrase a lot since the Patriots beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl 51. The NFL Network named a documentary after it, and it generally became the new team mantra ever since.
What this mantra means to me is that the team sacrifices everything for the greater good of the team. It’s not about individual snaps and touches, it’s about getting the ball away from the other team’s offense and scoring when you have the ball, and doing so at any cost, as long as it benefits the team. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. It also seems like a completely logical way of looking at it, too.
In my opinion—and we’ll see if I’m wrong here in a bit—”Do Your Job” is a little more than making sacrifices for the greater good of the team. It’s literally about doing one’s job. Every NFL defense is made up of players that are expected to do everything. When you draft a player, you expect them to be good at multiple things. If he’s an outside linebacker, can he cover? Can rush the edge if need be? How’s he against the run? That’s a lot to throw at 11 different starters and your group rotational players.
So what if you drafted or signed a guy just because he can rush the edge? What if you drafted him just to rush the edge? You’ve got 53 guys on this team. Utilize them just for what they’re good at if you can. I think that’s what Matt Patricia did in New England, and I think that’s what Matt Patricia is going to do in Detroit.
In fact, there are signs the Lions have already adopted the phrase. Linebacker Jarrad Davis told the Detroit Free Press the mantra has already appeared all over the team’s practice facility in Allen Park.
The Lions defense has some serious bright spots in the secondary, but their defensive line and their linebacking corps certainly appear to be lacking a total direction. Will the “Do Your Job” mantra fix the Lions’ issues and give them that direction? Let’s see what Brian Phillips has to say.
What is “do your job”, and what’s it really all about?
Beyond a simple, remarkably effective marketing and merchandise sales campaign, ‘Do Your Job’ has ascended to the pinnacle of tired coaching clichés. But there is actual substance behind the slogan. It refers to a mentality that digs a bit deeper. It’s a holistic approach of exhaustive preparation that goes beyond simply understanding and executing one’s own in-game assignments.
In New England, the tiniest details are heavily scrutinized with the expectation that they are the foundation for success in achieving the common goal. From extensive work on innocuous, repetitive fundamentals and in-game situations that a team could go five years without experiencing during regular season action, to making sure the roster’s physical conditioning exceeds that of its eventual opponents, no stones are left unturned. It also calls upon an elevated level of individual accountability for putting the team first and trusting the system.
Deviations from this mindset are dealt with swiftly. ‘Do Your Job’ is often supplemented with ‘or we’ll find someone who will’. Bill Belichick’s willingness to cut bait with talented players who allow outside factors like contractual grievances to impact on-field effort and decision making has been well-documented. The halls of the Patriots’ practice facilities are littered with the vaporized souls of players caught unprepared for one of Bill’s midweek pop quizzes. And regardless of status, no preparation-related mistake by a player or coach in a game or practice is exempt from scrutiny in front of the entire club.
Often portrayed as cold and callous, this system of accountability isn’t possible without strong locker room leadership, which is where ‘Do Your Job’ originated in the mid-’90s with players like Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi. And while the system does ask for a lot from the players, it results in a level of nuanced ego reduction that, at least around the NFL, is truly unique -- even as some of the game’s biggest personalities come and go.
Can Matt Patricia take the Lions’ defense and apply “do your job” to it?
He has to. Patricia’s defense requires some players to hone technical skill sets to become position specialists, while asking others to become positionally-amorphous chess pieces who must learn the subtleties of multiple roles, all while adhering to the broad, overarching concepts of the new system. It’s a lot of information, and it will require time for players to develop the communication skills that come with trusting that the men around them have all done their homework and know exactly where to be.
Do you see similarities in the Patriots’ defense and the Lions’ defense?
From a personnel perspective, absolutely. With the exception of one area, the cornerstones are all in place for Patricia to build a quality defense for a long time.
Having a physical man-to-man shutdown corner and a smart, rangy safety who can effectively match up with larger offensive personnel while also providing physicality in the box is essential for any defense, but particularly one with a heavy reliance on three and four-man pass rushes. It’s the reason Bill Belichick paid top dollar to extend Devin McCourty in 2015, and Stephon Gilmore last offseason. Darius Slay and Glover Quin, both top-five players in the league at their respective positions, check off both of those boxes for Patricia.
In New England, Patricia’s best pound-for pound athletes were at linebacker. While this Lions linebacker unit still has a long way to go, Jarrad Davis absolutely showed signs of development down the stretch last season with his patience and gap integrity -- aspects that will be crucial in the Mayo/Hightower role. Patricia covets players he can deploy against multiple offensive personnel packages, making Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s sideline-to-sideline wheels pretty enticing, even given the small 2017 sample size.
Unfortunately, the development of the linebackers could be hindered by substandard personnel on the interior. In the Patriots’ most successful defensive seasons, they received elite production from the big guys like Vince Wilfork, Akiem Hicks, and Alan Branch. Interior personnel powerful enough to control two gaps and take on double teams to keep linebackers clean in the run game and to help manufacture no-blitz pass rush through the execution of stunts and twists in crucial in Patricia’s system. Unfortunately, Sylvester Williams won’t provide that, leaving much of the burden to A’Shawn Robinson.
Edge defender analysis: Anthony Zettel literally is Rob Ninkovich.
So as you can see, the Lions defense is currently built to absorb this type of style. And I fully believe that this is what Lions fans should expect to see in 2018. I’m not saying this should quell any concern you may have. The Lions defense will certainly struggle early. It’s just going to happen. But it definitely answers questions that I had about the direction or lack of direction the Lions had in the offseason in regards to their defense. We’ll see what happens soon enough.
Before we get out of here, I have two bonus questions for Brian to answer that you may like.
Where does Matt Patricia make the biggest impact on the Lions’ defense in 2018?
The secondary -- particularly in the week-to-week personnel-specific matchups. With such a diverse mix of guys in the defensive backfield -- from large, physical corners like Deshawn Shead, to smaller, quicker guys like Quandre Diggs -- Detroit will be able to implement unique coverage packages and assignments.
It wasn’t uncommon for Patricia’s number one corners in New England to be tasked with shadowing a team’s number two wide receiver without any help over the top. At the same time, the opponent’s top threat would be corralled with press coverage from the number two corner, or a big-bodied corner like Eric Rowe, with Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon consistently shading to that side for to provide help.
You think the Lions are playoff bound in Patricia’s first year?
Even though success in year one under a new regime is typically the exception, not the rule, we’ve seen the introduction of a new head coach and staff breathe life into a roster that harnesses serious potential as recently as last season in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, the rest of the NFC North made significant improvements this offseason. A healthy Aaron Rodgers returns in Green Bay, who also added Jimmy Graham and Mo Wilkerson while finally absolving themselves of Dom Capers -- replacing him with Mike Pettine, a coordinator with a solid track record of production. Minnesota added Kirk Cousins, Sheldon Richardson, and Dalvin Cook to an already loaded roster. And a plethora of dynamic talent now surrounds Mitchell Trubisky as the Matt Nagy era begins in Chicago.
That being said, given how crowded the entire NFC will be in 2018, it certainly isn’t wild to think the Lions could have control over their own destiny with a month left on the calendar and sitting at game or two over .500. Whether they finish 10-6 or 6-10 is anyone’s guess.