Why Lions' defense under guru Matt Patricia has been woeful in 2019

The Lions have allowed more than 400 yards in four of six games this season. Steven King/Icon Sportswire

Devon Kennard sat in front of his Ford Field locker on Sunday afternoon, shaking his head. It was a quiet moment for him before the crush of media gathered to ask him about what has gone wrong with the Detroit Lions defense this season. Why a unit thought to be one of the better ones in the NFL has become one of the worst, allowing yards with ease on the ground and in the air.

The Minnesota Vikings were the latest team to shred them moments earlier -- 503 yards of slashing through the line on the ground and beating defensive backs in the air -- and the linebacker had enough.

“Today was embarrassing,” Kennard said. “Defensively, we didn’t play well enough at all. I don’t know how many rushing yards they had, but they were running the ball, passing the ball.

“They had their way with us.”

Every team has this season. That's a massive concern considering that when the Lions hired Matt Patricia a season-and-a-half ago, his forte was defense and getting the most out of his defensive players in positions where they could be successful. None of that has happened.

The Lions have allowed more than 400 yards in four of six games this season. Each of the last four games, they’ve allowed more yards than the week prior, culminating in the mess against Minnesota. It’s left Detroit’s defense statistically awful.

They are second-to-last in the NFL in yards per game (428.7), No. 28 in rushing yards allowed (139.2) and No. 30 in passing yards allowed (289.5). They can’t get to the quarterback, sacking opposing signal-callers on 4.1 percent of attempts. They can’t pick off passes, intercepting opponents on 1.2 percent of attempts. They aren’t getting off the field, dead last in first downs allowed per game (24.5).

It’s all led to questions with no real answers, platitudes of needing to work harder and communicate better and Patricia saying -- much like he did last season -- that he needs to coach better. Communication is where Patricia is starting, saying he tried to re-teach some things to his players Monday to emphasize what he’s looking for.

“That’s where I put it on me where I’ve got to coach it better. I think there are certainly things in there, small details of technique work that we needed fixed,” Patricia said. “And now we have to go out and work on it, out on the field. That’s where I start.

“It’s not really a scheme thing. We can play any scheme we want. I’ve coached more defense probably than anybody in the league as far as scheme is concerned. We’ve got to start somewhere, and you start with your foundation, and your foundation has to be good fundamentals. If you don’t have that or you’re not consistent with it, then it becomes really hard to fix everything else.”

Scheme, though, is an area where there have been some questions. For much of the season, the Lions rushed three players and dropped eight into coverage, which could explain some of the lack of sacks and opposing quarterback pressure.

Then the Lions blitzed 23.5 percent of the time Kirk Cousins dropped back Sunday and didn’t sack him once.

A bigger concern than generating pressure, though, is Detroit’s run defense. After trading for Damon Harrison last season, the Lions started playing like top-10 run-stoppers. Harrison was a boon for Detroit, and the addition of Trey Flowers seemed to give the Lions a versatile group that would be predicated on stopping the run.

Instead, the Lions have given up more than 100 yards rushing in every game they’ve played this season. The last two weeks, against Green Bay and Minnesota, they’ve allowed more than 160 rushing yards. In every game but one (Philadelphia), the Lions have allowed more than 4.25 yards per rush.

That’s even more concerning considering the Lions face the Giants’ Saquon Barkley on Sunday along with Oakland’s Josh Jacobs and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott over the next four games. So it won’t relent any time soon.

“... My entire career, that’s the only thing I’ve been known for,” Harrison said. “To see the numbers where they are is very disappointing.”

But the problems with Detroit’s run defense -- and defense in general -- go far beyond Harrison. The Lions have been without defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand all season and defensive lineman Mike Daniels for the past month, and star cornerback Darius Slay has been battling a hamstring injury since Week 3.

But the woes go beyond injury. It goes to almost everyone on the unit, from front to back, from coordinator to head coach.

The defense has been a failure so far and an explanation for why the Lions have given up fourth-quarter leads in two of their three losses and also the season-opening tie against Arizona. And why despite scoring 30 points against Minnesota -- a team that had given up more than 20 points just once this season -- it wasn’t good enough for a Detroit victory.

“You try to do everything better,” safety Tavon Wilson said. “I think, if you’re not winning games, you have to evaluate everything. I got to take a hard look in the mirror. Everyone in this locker room has to take a hard look in the mirror.

“Just evaluate everything and try to find some answers.”

Answers that, at least to this point, have been difficult to come up with but are incredibly necessary if Detroit is going to fix its sliding-away season.