Detroit Lions: Will this defensive change unlock unit’s potential?

Amani Oruwariye, Detroit Lions (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Amani Oruwariye, Detroit Lions (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions have the worst passing defense in the NFL. Will this change help?

The 3-12-1 Detroit Lions ended last season allowing the second-most yards (6,406) to opposing offenses in the NFL. Their passing defense was ranked dead last in the league, allowing 284.4 yards through the air per game.

As a result, the Lions made a slew of changes on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. First and foremost, moving on from defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and hiring the Philadelphia Eagles’ longtime defensive backs coach, Cory Undlin, to replace him.

The reshaping of the Lions’ defense continued with several veterans being removed from the roster. Those names include defensive tackles Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, Mike Daniels, linebacker Devon Kennard, safety Tavon Wilson, cornerback Darius Slay, and more.

In their place, the Lions added players like defensive tackle Nick Williams, Danny Shelton, linebacker Jamie Collins, safety Duron Harmon, plus cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and first-round rookie Jeff Okudah. In total, Detroit could field as many as six new starters on that side of the ball when their regular season kicks off against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Sept. 13.

But with so many new faces, and a new defensive coordinator in place, things aren’t expected to change much scheme-wise in Detroit. After all, Matt Patricia took over as the Lions’ head coach back in 2018 because of his defensive prowess as the highly-touted defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots for six years.

Here’s what Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press wrote on Monday about the one aspect of the defense that will change with Undlin now set to call the defensive plays in the Motor City.

"“One change seems apparent. The Lions regularly had top cornerback Darius Slay cover the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver the last two seasons, but Undlin said Sunday he won’t be beholden to traveling cornerbacks.”"

Birkett would go on to describe how free agent veteran Desmond Trufant is often seen working on the left side, Amani Oruwariye opposite him on the right, and Jeff Okudah shuffling between both during training camp practices. That leaves Justin Coleman to cover the slot.

It takes a special kind of cornerback to be able to travel to any spot on the field and cover the league’s top wide receivers. Slay was clearly talented enough to do so as his three-straight Pro Bowl nominations can attest to.

But there’s also a case to be made for playing cornerbacks in a position where they are the most comfortable or suited for, which allows them to pour the most practice time into. That kind of consistency has its benefits as well.

While this means a cornerback that some may consider to be second or third-tier might have to face off against an opponent’s top receiving threat, the defender may be better suited to do so as he’s focused all of his time and effort covering from that side of the field.

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In the end, the Detroit Lions have made several changes to the defensive side of the ball this offseason. And they are hoping its enough to stave off the kind of performance they fielded last year. Perhaps this minor shift in defensive philosophy will be enough to unlock this unit’s potential.