Analyzing the Detroit Lions in man defense vs. zone

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It’s been one of the most scrutinized things of the Matt Patricia era with the Detroit Lions. The head coach was hired before the 2018 season to run the team -- and with him, many thought, a versatile, innovative defense would follow.

In some ways, it has. He’s brought a full defensive plate with multiple looks and packages. It’s a complex defense, without question. But it’s brought two layers of criticism -- a lack of pressure up front and the team’s man vs. zone tendencies everywhere else.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, in Detroit’s four wins this season, the Lions have played less than 60 percent man defense. In its five losses, it has played more than 60 percent man defense. Now some of that can be explained away by game situation -- it makes more sense to play zone when you have a lead to keep teams from moving down the field faster, which is simple football logic.

“You don’t want teams to quick-strike score on you fast [when you’re up],” said Aqib Talib, the former NFL cornerback who called Sunday’s Detroit-Washington game. “Any time you get a lead, man, it’s easy for coaches to start calling that Cover 4 and their Cover 3’s and tell guys to play things top down.

“That’s just the nature of the business, man. I don’t want to be up, 14-0, and then next thing you know, I give up two plays in man coverage and now it’s 14-14. I want you to take long to score. I want you to take five minutes to drive down the field.”

On Sunday, though, the Lions played more zone than man (69.6 percent zone, 30.4 percent man) when building a 24-3 lead before Washington touched the ball in the second half. Then the Lions, in the second half, switched to 62.9 percent man and 37.1 percent zone.

Detroit allowed points on each of Washington's second-half possessions, seeing a 24-3 lead evaporate before Matt Prater’s 59-yard field goal as time expired gave the Lions a 30-27 lead. Defensive coordinator Cory Undlin, asked about the switch Tuesday, said he wished he would have flipped it to man quicker because of the way Washington quarterback Alex Smith started to get the ball out faster.

“I probably should have played more man in the second half. Kind of stayed with the plan there as they kind of went through the no-huddle and then Alex was ripping that ball out super quick,” Undlin said. “Stayed with some zone and then it wasn’t really until the end, that last drive, that we had to change it up. Looking back at it, I could have probably changed it up faster than that to give him another look. I’m going to play man or I’m going to play zone, whatever I feel is the best key to winning the game.

“So if I could do it again, I probably would have played some more man faster in the second half.”

The Lions almost got a stop on Washington’s final possession, but a fourth-down (perhaps questionable) pass interference call on Desmond Trufant extended the drive that ultimately led to the game-tying field goal with 16 seconds left.

Why has man defense been a struggle for Detroit this season? Some of it has to do with pressure. Detroit has continually produced an inconsistent pass rush under Patricia, giving quarterbacks more time to dissect man defense and making secondary coverage untenable. Even the best corners lose receivers covering them for a long length of time.

Patricia is known as a man-heavy coach even though he has almost every coverage possible at his disposal -- something he’s said multiple times.

“We just try to do whatever we can each week to give ourselves a chance to win,” Patricia said. “Sometimes that’s going to be one coverage more than the other. Whatever we think helps us do that, that’s what we’re going to do. Sometimes it’s based on our personnel,

sometimes it’s based on the opponent personnel.

“I would say we have a lot of coverages, run a lot of different schemes, and we’re just trying to put whatever we can out there and put the guys in the best position possible.”

So far this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Lions have played man 58.9 percent -- allowing opponents to complete 59.3 percent of their passes for 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. In zone, which Detroit plays 41.1 percent of dropbacks, the Lions allow 74 percent completions, one touchdown and two interceptions.

These numbers are similar to what Patricia did in 2018 and more balanced than 2019, when the Lions played man 65.9 percent and zone 33.9 percent.

This season, Detroit has the fourth-highest percentage of man defense played in the league -- behind Arizona (64.9 percent), Denver (63 percent) and Jacksonville (59 percent). The Patriots, at 58.7 percent, are just behind the Lions.

The Lions have balance in the second and third quarters (51.5 percent man vs. 48.5 percent zone on second down and 53.8 percent man vs. 46.3 percent zone on third down) but have relied much more on man at the start and end of games.

Detroit has played man defense 64 percent in the first quarter and 67.8 percent in the fourth quarter.

They’ve actually played more zone on first downs this season -- 51.5 percent zone to 48.5 percent man -- and played at least 60 percent man on every other down.

In wins this season, Detroit has played 48.6 percent man and 51.4 percent zone. In losses, they’ve played 71.2 percent man and 28.8 percent zone, which makes sense in terms of trying to force short drives.

The Lions don’t often disguise what they are doing, either -- showing man and playing zone on only 14.7 percent of defensive dropbacks. Only the Texans, Panthers, Titans and Washington disguise defenses less.

It’s led to a mixed bag on defense -- some strong stretches and other times where the Lions can’t get off the field, causing all sorts of problems trying to win games.

Numbers of man vs. zone were compiled by ESPN Stats & Information. Follow Stats and Information on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo.