ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Matt Patricia is always confident. The second-year Detroit Lions head coach has even had success against the Green Bay Packers and QB Aaron Rodgers. But Patricia, this time, is concerned.
“It probably makes me more nervous than anything,” Patricia said of facing Rodgers. “To be honest with you.”
What Rodgers does would concern almost any coach, defender or coordinator. Rodgers pays attention to everything and knows when a coordinator or coach has gotten the better of him before. Last season, even in the midst of going 6-10, the Lions defeated Rodgers in Week 5.
Patricia, though, has seemed to find his defensive schematic rhythm against some of Detroit’s most high-profile opponents during his first 20 games as the team’s head coach. The praise came over the past year, after the New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl and then again, last week, after the Indianapolis Colts knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night.
The Lions lost against the Rams last season and the Chiefs last month. But the game plan second-year head coach Matt Patricia was able to scheme against both teams -- on his own against the Rams and with an assist to last season’s Patriots game plan versus the Chiefs -- became a starting point for teams to contain two of the most explosive offenses in football.
“They played good defense. They played man coverage. They rushed with four people and they found ways to get pressure and to cover long enough,” Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes said Sunday night after the Chiefs’ loss. “For us, Detroit did it last week. New England did it in the playoffs.
“I mean, we’re going to have to beat man coverage at the end of the day and we got the guys to do it.”
Against Kansas City, Detroit’s defense ended up being a good matchup even though they were without cornerback Darius Slay -- one of the better man-to-man corners in the league -- for the whole game and safety Quandre Diggs for the majority of it. Patricia was able to scheme correctly by not blitzing much -- something he doesn’t do much typically anyway. The Lions blitzed Mahomes on 10.6% of his dropbacks, which is standard for a Patricia defense. Consider Detroit has blitzed more than 25% of the time in just three of his first 20 games, while he’s blitzed on less than 10% of dropbacks seven times, including in two of four games this season.
There was a different strategy for the Rams. While the Lions blitzed a normal-for-them 11.4% of dropbacks, what former Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit noticed in the Lions' game plan against the Rams was running more quarters defense on early downs -- something Detroit doesn’t often do -- and keeping the safeties at a distance, making identifying the type of defense more difficult.
The Lions also focused on taking away passes to the middle of the field -- with Goff throwing to the middle of the field just 9.1% of the time against Detroit. Against New England in the Super Bowl, Goff went over the middle 20% of the time, but rarely deep and rarely completed, going 3 of 19.
“We just felt like we had to put something together that would neutralize the running game and their big-play play-action passes on early downs,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on ESPN after the Super Bowl. “That’s where they’ve killed people all year is the 120-some explosive plays that they’ve had. We felt like if we make them drive it, make them earn it, similar to what the Lions did to 'em.
“To make them run a lot of plays and get them in third down, we felt like we’ve have a chance to get them off the field on third down. Ultimately we were able to do that.”
Of course, the difference for the Lions in these games against high-powered offenses is they lost, whereas the Patriots and Colts won. Patricia did manage wins in other big games, though, beating the Packers on the road and the Patriots at home in 2018.
“It’s great to talk about, there’s a lot of cool things in there, I think, but in the end for us it’s all about the team and it’s all about the players,” Patricia said. “And it’s all about trying to win and unless we do that, we’re really not satisfied.”
Which is where the Lions are now. Since the middle of the 2015 season, the Lions have won three of their past four games in Lambeau Field and have not lost to the Packers since they fell, 31-24, in the 2016 season finale that cost Detroit its first division title since 1993.
But they’ve found a way to be good against good teams since Patricia took over as head coach (and also, honestly, pretty bad against some bad ones). Some of that is the nature of the NFL. Some of it, too, is the types of game plans Patricia has drawn up -- which likely means another reasonably good plan of attack could be coming Monday night.