Matthew Stafford hopes new coaching staff can help Lions get back to the playoffs
Matt Patricia knows the “honeymoon phase” won’t last long. “Let’s see what happens in October,” the new coach jokes. But it’s the marriage that everyone’s banking on, as general manager Bob Quinn and Patricia, who spent 12 years together in New England before their staggered arrivals in Detroit, try to model the “Patriot Way” in a place where playoff success feels like a fairy tale.
The ex-Pats’ shared philosophies and ideas about building an NFL roster were formed through countless scouting trips and late-night film sessions in Foxboro. And to hear Lions president Rod Wood talk, Quinn was raving about Patricia, who spent the last six seasons as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator, as a future head coach long before he decided to fire Jim Caldwell following a second straight 9-7 finish. But despite matching contracts that run through 2022, there’s an urgency to win now, with quarterback Matthew Stafford in his prime and a foundation Quinn has rebuilt through three offseasons.
Amid all the changes in Detroit, one thing remains constant: Stafford is back for his 10th season, carrying a streak of 112 consecutive starts -- third longest among active NFL quarterbacks. And much to his delight, he won’t have to learn a new scheme, as Patricia opted to keep offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who received a strong endorsement from the Lions’ veteran quarterback after last season.
Stafford has completed 66.3 percent of his passes while throwing for more than 272 yards per game since Cooter took over the play-calling duties midway through the 2015 season. Last season, despite a rash of injuries on the offensive line and a running game that ranked 32nd in the league, the Lions still finished seventh in the league in scoring.
And Quinn has made it clear that he expects even more this season, targeting an area that has plagued this franchise for years. He felt his team lacked toughness in 2017, and it showed up most often in short-yardage situations, where the Lions’ dismal conversion percentage undoubtedly cost them wins.
“All those critical situations -- like, it’s goal-line, and we can’t run the ball half a yard -- that bothered me,” Quinn says.
He responded by investing heavily in the run game this offseason, signing power back LeGarrette Blount in free agency and then drafting Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson in the second round. Johnson impressed scouts with his short-area burst and hard-running style, and he should supplant Ameer Abdullah as the primary ball carrier. Quinn also used the Lions’ first-round pick on Arkansas center Frank Ragnow, a strong, competitive interior presence, completing an overhaul of the line that began three years ago.
The Lions started 12 different line combinations a year ago due to injuries, missing left tackle Taylor Decker early and with veterans T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner hobbling late. If that group stays healthy, working with new line coach Jeff Davidson and a much-improved backfield, Stafford -- sacked a career-high 47 times in 2017 -- should have more time to do his thing.
He’s not lacking weapons, with big-play targets downfield in Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay -- the latter a breakout candidate after flashing as a rookie a year ago -- and a sure-handed slot star in Golden Tate, coming off his fourth straight 90-catch season. Theo Riddick remains one of the NFL’s better receiving threats out of the backfield. And with the departure of Eric Ebron, a polarizing former first-round pick, the Lions’ tight end position may be more of a committee, with free-agent additions Luke Willson -- ready for a bigger role than he had in Seattle -- and Levine Toilolo buying time for second-year pro Michael Roberts to develop.
The Lions’ defense is changing, but just what it will look like may depend on the play or the opponent. Still, the expectation is it’ll look more like the one Patricia ran in New England, with more three-man fronts and two-gap responsibilities at the line of scrimmage.
Quinn’s comments about his team lacking toughness last season also applied to a defense that ranked 27th in yards allowed and got pushed around quite a bit after defensive tackle Haloti Ngata suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5.
The GM spent the offseason bulking up, particularly at linebacker, where he made the biggest splash by signing the Giants’ Devon Kennard, a versatile 260-pounder who sets the edge well and can rush the passer, something Lions fans will see more of from that position this fall. Free agents Christian Jones and Jonathan Freeny also join a linebacker corps that’s built around 2017 first-round pick Jarrad Davis, a hard-hitting run defender who started all 14 games he played as a rookie.
Nose tackle Sylvester Williams was brought in from Tennessee to help fill Ngata’s void, and the Lions opted to use the franchise tag on top pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah, making him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive end this season along with the Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence. Ansah struggled with injuries the last two years, and though he finished with 12 sacks last season, nine of those came in three games against overmatched tackles. So this will be a prove-it year for the former Pro Bowler and first-round pick.
The Lions are hoping Kerry Hyder, an underrated sack specialist who missed last season after a torn Achilles in training camp, makes a healthy return, while third-year pro Anthony Zettel has shown steady improvement as well. But Quinn traded up in the draft to grab defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, a 297-pound talent who looks like an ideal scheme fit. He and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson will be reunited with their former defensive line coach at Alabama, Bo Davis, a key member of Patricia’s revamped staff.
The secondary was a strength last season, and that should continue, with Pro Bowler Darius Slay (eight INTs in 2017) emerging as a shutdown corner and veterans Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson back at safety. The Lions added more competition opposite Slay by re-signing Nevin Lawson and then adding DeShawn Shead from Seattle in free agency. Last year’s second-round pick, Teez Tabor, also is in the mix, while Quandre Diggs impressed in a late-season switch to safety.
The Lions have one of the league’s best all-around special teams units. Matt Prater is coming off a second consecutive season with 30 or more field goals, and his ability in the clutch remains one of the team’s best weapons. He has 20 game-winning or game-tying kicks over his career in the final four minutes of regulation or overtime. And the Lions are counting on a bounce-back year from punter Sam Martin, who suffered a freak ankle injury last summer and missed the first six games of last season. He never really found a consistent form after that. What the Lions found in the late rounds of last year’s draft, though, was an All-Pro return man in Jamal Agnew, who led the league in punt return yardage and took back a pair for touchdowns. Agnew may have a bigger role as an offensive playmaker or at cornerback this season. And if so, Abdullah, provided he’s still on the roster, could revisit the kick return role he excelled in earlier in his career.
The Lions haven’t won a division title in a quarter-century, and last season’s 9-7 finish felt like another missed opportunity, given the key quarterback injuries in Green Bay and Minnesota. Still, coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the mid-1990s, Detroit has the talent -- and the quarterback -- to be a playoff contender. And a playoff-starved fan base is banking on an engaging new coach in Patricia to do what so many others before him couldn’t. Forget about the Patriot Way, he says: “After you have some success, that’s when you start calling it ‘The Lions Way.’”