The Detroit Lions couldn't help themselves the last few years, doing just well enough under Jim Caldwell for the coach to keep his job. Finally in 2018, Bob Quinn got his excuse to bring in his own guy, with Caldwell missing the playoffs despite going 9-7. Enter Matt Patricia, another in a long list of Bill Belichick disciples we want to believe will succeed away from the nest.
Patricia's biggest goal should be giving the Lions some kind of identity. In years past, they've been mostly a team with a non-descript defense and zero running game that relies on Matthew Stafford's heroics to steal games away. He has an absurd nine fourth-quarter comebacks the last two years along with 12 game-winning drives in that span.
The Lions clearly confuse Vegas as well, because they're squarely in what I call the Shrug Emoji Zone,.
Why They'll Go Over
Stare at this depth chart long enough and you start to see the makings of a very interesting team. Stafford is a top-10 quarterback who has sort of inserted himself into the equation. Keeping Jim Bob Cooter around isn't just good for people in the media who get to talk about the Lions, it's also smart business because it promotes continuity for the offense. The running game, as Tori Petry of DetroitLions.com noted on the Pick Six Podcast, should be substantially better than in years past. Quinn and Patricia invested heavily in the backfield, adding LeGarrette Blount (free agency) and Kerryon Johnson (second-round draft pick) to the mix along with Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah. This group as a distinctly Patriots-like feel to it. The wide receiver group is the most underrated in football, with Golden Tate (four years of 90-plus catches, great with the ball in his hands), Marvin Jones (had some of the most athletic plays you'll see last year) and Kenny Golladay (a Year 2 breakout candidate).
Defensively, the plan appears to be for Detroit to stop having the defensive lineman rush the passer so much, and instead to let big bodies like A'Shawn Robinson and Da'Shawn Hand (both Alabama linemen drafted in the first four rounds the last two years) clog up as many blockers as possible and send linebackers shooting through the gaps. Jarrad Davis could be set for an enormous year roaming the middle of this defense and piling up tackles. Again, this feels a lot more like the Patriots than the Lions.
Why They'll Go Under
The offense might stutter -- even under the old offensive coaching scheme with a go-to-quarterback, there are plenty of changes coming for this roster, which makes life difficult out of the gates. Johnson and Blount feel like a major upgrade in May, but let's see how they look once the application hits in August. Investing in the offensive line during the draft is a big plus, but it's not like first-round pick Frank Ragnow is guaranteed to step in and be a road grader. It's easy to see a situation where we wonder what's going on with the Lions offense in September.
Defensively, no one doubts Patricia's coaching chops, but what if the Lions just don't have the bodies out there? The idea of loading up on SEC talent makes a ton of sense, but it hasn't always been perfect in practice. This is a really, really tough division, with the Vikings adding Kirk Cousins, the Packers getting Aaron Rodgers back and the Bears looking like a much-improved team.
What They're Saying
"He's made it clear it's going to be a week-to-week matchup basis. That's kind of his style, that's what he's done for years and that's what he wants to do when he comes to Detroit. It appears he's targeting defensive linemen who are not that downhill, attack-the-quarterback style of play that they were playing before. And kind of getting those versatile guys he can move around and play with, that are big, strong, and that seems to be the style that he's shifting to a bit. He's been adamant it's not going to be a 3-4, it's not going to be a 4-3, there is no base defense really, it's just going to be a week-to-week basis.
"It's going to be interesting to see how that part of things unfolds as well, because I think he can get creative with the linebacking corps and the group of DBs he has, because he has a very deep of defensive backs, some guys who can play inside/outside, some guys who are kind of hybrid safety-linebackers."
-- Tori Petry of DetroitLions.com breaking down Matt Patricia's defense on the Pick Six Podcast
Early Schedule Analysis
The Lions were handed no favors by the Scheduling Gods. They open with the Jets, which is nice, but they get the 49ers (road), Patriots (home, hello media coverage), Cowboys (road) and Packers (home) before their Week 5 bye. That's a rough stretch and they need to steal one game or hold serve to be in good shape. After their bye, three of their next four are on the road, including back-to-back divisional games against the Vikings and Bears. Things should get easier ... but they don't. They host the Panthers, Bears and Rams in back-to-back-to-back home games in late November (including Thanksgiving) and need to go no worse than 2-1 in that stretch it feels like. Their final four games are winnable, but don't set up well: Cardinals (road), Bills (road), Vikings (home) and Packers (road) is not a really fun stretch. The road games are just all clumped together.
The schedule is brutal and there are some unknowns about the coaching staff, but I like what the Lions have cooking in terms of upgrading the defense and improving the run game. I'm buying on Patricia as a coach and feel like the Lions make some headway, stick around, get involved in the divisional title race and, even if they fall just short of winning it, topple the .500 prediction from Vegas.