One of the biggest complaints about the Detroit Lions’ strategy through the first two games of the season was their wild overreliance on man-coverage. With a beat-up secondary filled with first and second-year cornerbacks, it was a tough spot to put the Lions players in. And the results spoke for themselves.
Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire highlighted Detroit’s issues in a series of tweets. Through two games, the Lions had played more man coverage than any other NFL team and they had also allowed the most man-coverage passing touchdowns in the NFL with five.
This is an issue that goes back to last year, too. Matt Patricia’s 2019 defense featured more man coverage than any other NFL team and they ranked 27th in passer rating allowed (99.6), while allowing 33 touchdowns (t-29th) and forcing just seven interceptions (t-last). That’s likely what drove Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury to say this before Sunday:
Kliff Kingsbury on any changes he's seen from the Lions defense under new DC Cory Undlin:— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) September 23, 2020
"It looks really similar to me."
But Detroit’s defense didn’t look “really similar” in Week 3. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information (via Michael Rothstein), the Lions drastically altered their use of man-coverage against the Cardinals. Here’s the week-by-week breakdown of man and zone coverage percentages:
Week 1: 82.1% man, 17.9% zone
Week 2: 81.8% man, 18.2% zone
Week 3: 55.6% man, 44.4% zone
The result on the field was significant. The Lions defense logged three interceptions after tallying zero in the first two games. They also had two key defensive stops late, forcing Kyler Murray to go just 1-for-5 for 12 yards in the final quarter of the game.
But at the same time, things weren’t all great for the Lions pass defense. Murray finished with 7.7 yards per attempt, which is actually higher than the Lions were allowing up until Week 3 (7.3). Additionally, the Cardinals didn’t punt in this game until the fourth quarter. Even two of their three interceptions came in man coverage.
Still, the drastic shift in strategy showed off one important thing we haven’t seen from this team since Matt Patricia took over: a willingness to change. And, who knows? Maybe that level of unpredictability caught both Murray and Kingsbury off guard on Sunday and forced some of those game-changing mistakes that led to Detroit’s first win.