Mixing up coverages didn’t work for the Lions defense in 2020

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The Detroit Lions defense was abysmal in 2020. Anyone who watched the team can tell you that, and the numbers back up the eyeball test failure of Matt Patricia’s scheme.

But how much can get blamed on the scheme, specifically in pass defense where the team ranked dead last among the 32 NFL teams?

A study from Pro Football Focus sheds some light on how Patricia’s schematics and outlying strategy failed the players on the field.

Most NFL teams play more zone coverage as a base scheme than what Patricia’s Lions did. The exact zone scheme varies from defense to defense, but the emphasis on not relying on man coverage as a base strategy is pretty common outside the Bill Belichick coaching tree from which Patricia stemmed.

Interestingly, Patricia deployed more zone coverage as a base defense as the losses mounted. The graphic from PFF shows the radical dropoff in the devotion to the less common straight man coverage to more zone. In Detroit’s case, it was typically Cover-1 or Cover-3 zones still using man coverage looks on the outside.

From PFF,

The Lions started 0-2 while playing zone coverage only 21% of the time during those weeks. They transitioned to a more common NFL defense, playing zone 48% of the time from Week 3 to Week 12, when Patricia was fired.

Despite the more unconventional looks early in the season, the defense just wasn’t very good. The Lions allowed 27, 42, 23 and 35 points to their respective opponents in Weeks 1-4, before the bye week. The curve in the graph levels off at this point, and it did get better in the next two games; Detroit held the Jaguars to 16 and the Falcons to 22 points in the two weeks exiting the bye, both wins.

Alas, the more mainstream look quickly faded in effectiveness. The Lions defense allowed less than 27 points only one time (the 20-0 shutout loss to Carolina) the rest of the season. Detroit didn’t force a single takeaway in the final four weeks, which was on interim coach Darrell Bevell’s watch and not Patricia.

What that indicates is that while Patricia’s coverage schemes didn’t work well, the players also didn’t perform well either. Of course, asking cornerbacks who are best-suited to play in man coverage to operate in zone more often is an inherent problem. The lack of a consistent pass rush to disrupt the timing of the opposing offense didn’t help cover up the back-end play, either.

The only real benefit for the Lions defense in playing more zone was against the run, where they improved later in the year and significantly so outside of the two games against the Minnesota Vikings.

The challenge for new Detroit head coach Dan Campbell, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and the fresh staff is to coax better performances out of the players. That can be done by both scheme and a different coaching approach.