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Football Outsiders Q&A Part 1: Can Matt Patricia produce a top-10 defense in Detroit?

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How quickly can the new Lions’ head coach turn around the defense?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Back in January, when we broke down every one of Matt Patricia’s seasons as defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, an interesting observation emerged. While the Patriots’ defenses ranked in the top 10 every single year Patricia was there, the defense was extremely inconsistent when it came to DVOA metrics—which measure a team’s down-by-down efficiency based on down, distance, game situation and strength of opponent.

The Patriots ranked anywhere from 12th to 31st in DVOA during Patricia’s reign, but averaged right around the middle of the league.

So to figure out what exactly that means for Patricia and the Detroit Lions—who ranked 21st in points allowed and 19th in DVOA—we tapped Football Outsiders (who created DVOA) to help us break things down.

In the first part of our five-part Q&A series, we asked Football Outsider’s Assistant Editor Scott Kacsmar about this discrepancy in stats.

Question 1: Matt Patricia’s defense has consistently ranked in the top 10 in points allowed, but has been all over the place in DVOA, what do you account for the difference?

Scott Kacsmar: Yes, New England consistently ranks higher in points allowed than it does in any metric featuring yards or success rate (like DVOA). A lot of this has to do with Bill Belichick’s bend-but-don’t-break defensive style. The Patriots usually don’t love to blitz, so they’ll play things safer than most defenses, including the most three-man rushes in the league year after year. While this may lead to some cheap completions and longer drives than expected, they’ll usually tighten up in the red zone. The Patriots also have had a lot of good years in regards to takeaways, which can always make up for allowing a lot of yards in a drive. Plus that team leads big a lot, so sometimes giving up that 80-yard touchdown drive late in the game isn’t a big deal when it just means the Patriots win 30-20 instead of 30-13.

As long as you’re not breaking too often, this strategy can be effective in the NFL, but I would be skeptical about Patricia being able to bring it seamlessly to Detroit.

Thanks to Scott for the answer. Tomorrow’s topic: Kerryon Johnson and the Lions’ improved(?) running game.

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