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Football Outsiders Q&A: What’s the difference between the Lions and Patriots defenses?

Why are the Lions failing to recreate the Patriots defense in Detroit?

New England Patriots v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions went 3-12-1 for a lot of different reasons in 2019, but chief among them may be the play of their defense. The Lions allowed 26.4 points per game, which was seventh worst in the league. They were especially bad defending the pass, allowing a passer rating of 99.6 (27th) and 7.8 yards per attempt (26th).

Meanwhile, the New England Patriots were on the complete other end of the spectrum. They allowed the fewest points in the NFL (14.1), the lowest passer rating (62.8) and the second-lowest yards per attempt (6.0).

So what exactly is going on here? Lions head coach Matt Patricia comes directly from the Patriots school of thought, and he was hailed as a defensive genius when the Lions hired him two years ago. Philosophically and schematically the teams are undeniably similar, but the results couldn’t be any more different.

Is this simply a difference in talent or is there some sort of strategic difference between the two teams? We went back to our friends at Football Outsiders to dig into their statistics. Thanks again to Bryan Knowles for the answer.


3. The Patriots had one of the best defenses last year, the Lions one of the worst. Since they’re schematically similar, what did NE do that the Lions couldn’t? Any big strategic differences or was it just performance based?

“There was actually a notable strategic difference — the Patriots blitzed more often than Detroit did last season. Belichick and his disciples love rushing just three and dropping everyone else into coverage; four of the five teams to use three-man rushes most frequently in 2019 belonged to the Belichick tree: Patricia, Brian Flores, Mike Vrabel and Belichick himself. But even for a Belichick disciple, Patricia’s Lions were strangely content to have a minimal pass rush — they had only three rushers 27% of the time, the highest number we’ve tracked going back to 2011.. New England rushed five or more 30% of the time, eighth-most in the league. The Lions had five or more rushers only 11% of the time, dead last.

“The style of defense the Patriots and Lions play preaches self-sufficiency. You rely on the defensive line to generate pressure; you rely on your corners to play man-to-man. The more you can count on individual players to do their jobs without extra help, the more creative the defense as a whole can be with formations, packages and fronts — the variety and confusion makes them so difficult to read. The Patriots had the talent to make that work; the Lions didn’t. But Belichick also was a more creative and dynamic playcaller last season; there’s more to emulating that defense than rushing three over and over again and calling it a day. Which conveniently leads us into your next question...”

Tomorrow: Is Matt Patricia hurting the Lions’ chances to win?

If you want more detailed information on the Lions’ 2019 season and projections for the upcoming season, check out the Football Outsiders 2020 Almanac.