Note: This article is part of SB Nation’s NFL theme week. This week’s theme is simply 2018 NFL preview and why we’re excited about our favorite team.
We’re only two preseason games in, and the Detroit Lions hype balloon is already deflating after a couple disappointing performances. While there are certainly reasons to be concerned, it’s dangerous to read too much into exhibition games. The sample size is low for individuals, and the coaches aren’t game planning for their weekly opponents yet.
So in an effort to keep the positivity high, I’m going to explain why I still have a pretty high level of excitement for the 2018 season. And it starts and ends with the Lions’ biggest offseason move: Acquiring Matt Patricia.
While I was a little skeptical of the Patricia signing initially, the more I have gotten to know Patricia, the more I am impressed with his football knowledge. He’ll take a simple press conference question and go a full two minutes answering it. Just look at his response to the question, “What do you look for in a good safety?”
“The safety position is something that, where I was previously, we had a lot of success. We had a lot of really great players in that position going all the way back. One of the things that’s critical about the safety position, very similar to the linebacker position, is when you sit or align in the middle of the field in that second or third level, which is what those guys do, there’s a lot of communication that needs to go on. There’s a lot of awareness and identification. You have to be a really smart football player to then coordinate the rest of the defense and really tie it all together. So, the linebackers are critical to help the front—the defensive line—get lined up. Those guys have their hand down in the dirt and they’re staring at another guy who’s about to hit him in the face. So, there’s a lot of verbal communication that has to go on there and recognition and things that can help those guys play faster up front. Just from simple formation sets, identification, where’s the quarterback lined up, the backfield set, is he deep, is he shallow, is he wide—sort of that stuff that those guys can’t see up front. Those linebackers can (see), and they can help and communicate to those guys. And then in accordance, those linebackers have to then work with the safeties to tie in the different kind of front fits from a run standpoint, force communication, and then also coverage. There’s obviously a huge element to mixing in and fitting the safety positions into the linebacker coverage to make sure everybody’s on the same page. And then the safety’s responsibility, what’s good for them is then they have to obviously communicate out to the corners. Sometimes, that’s a little bit difficult. Those corners are kind of the only guys I would say on the football field that really see the game completely different than everybody else. They look at the game outside-in. Everybody’s kind of, from a defensive perspective, staring at it from top down if you’re on a third level or second level position. And the corners, it’s really difficult. So, you have to get the information out to those guys because there’s an entire field across from them that they can’t see and you have to really be able to give them some awareness. So, intelligence would be the No. 1 thing right there. Recognition, just being a smart student of the game, and then the thing about safeties is there’s really—we’re going to be down in the box some. We’re going to be in the deep part of the field in some of those situations and you have to be able to adapt. Part of that is obviously the run game, so those guys that are down closer to the run, those run fits move pretty fast. You stand behind those offensive and defensive linemen, you try to decipher where those backs come through. That’s a huge skillset and it’s great to have those guys that have good vision and can fit those plays. So, it’s a really complex position and it’s one of the ones, along with the linebackers, that we often refer to as the quarterback of the defense.”
That’s 548 words on one of the simplest questions he’ll hear, and if you actually take the time to read them all, it’s quite informative in a way that you almost never hear from a coach in public.
But these are just words. Results speak louder, and I think we haven’t even seen the tip of the Patricia iceberg when it comes to on-field accomplishments. Perhaps Patricia’s biggest asset is something we won’t even see until Week 1: his flexible game-planning.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin didn’t specifically gameplan for their opponents every week; they obviously did. But Patricia is going to take that to a whole different level. We saw this Lions defense stubbornly try to succeed using the same defensive scheme week in and week out for the past several seasons. That’s not going to happen under Patricia.
And while we haven’t seen any specific gameplanning yet this preseason, we have seen the versatility that Patricia will be bringing. We’ve seen Ezekiel Ansah lined up all over the place in training camp. We’ve seen the Lions line up in three, four and five-men fronts. We’ve seen players like Quandre Diggs and Miles Killebrew switch up positions with regularity.
This is obviously going to come with a lot of growing pains, seeing as this sort of complication and versatility takes time to learn and adjust to. However, Patricia has a track record strong enough to garner some faith that in the long-term, this Lions defense is going to figure it out. And considering he’s already inheriting a top-10 offense, the future looks bright for Matt Patricia and the Lions.