Patricia, Lions Asking Jeff Okudah To Be Their Stephon Gilmore

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By 97.1 The Ticket

If you've watched the Lions at all since Matt Patricia came on the scene, you've seen them play tons of man coverage. No team in the NFL plays more. It's a defensive philosophy Patricia brought with him from New England, even if he's loath to admit it. 

"I always love when man coverage and our team gets thrown around a little bit, because that means some of the zone coverages we're playing are disguised pretty good," Patricia said during an interview last week with Mike Tirico on NBC Sports' Lunch Talk Live. "So I enjoy that, that’s always good for me when that's out there."
Zone coverage, man coverage -- call it what you want. Last season it fell apart. Detroit gave up the most passing yards in the NFL and made opposing quarterbacks look like the great Ronnie Bass. Mitch Trubisky, universal prey, picked apart Detroit's secondary once, then came back for seconds three weeks later. 

Not that the secondary was the only problem, or even the root of it. The corners were hung out to dry by a pass rush -- if we can even call it that -- that almost never got home. The Lions tied for the second fewest sacks in the NFL, as that famous marriage of coverage and pressure went up in smoke. 

But this is a Patricia defense, for better or worse. He wants to attack the QB with different looks in the front seven and go mono-e-mono in the secondary. It's no coincidence the Lions just drafted a cornerback with elite coverage skills third overall. They didn't draft Jeff Okudah to play zone. They drafted him, in large part, because he fits their scheme. 

"That was really important," Patricia acknowledged. "Talking with (former Ohio State defensive backs coach) Jeff Hafley, some of the things he teaches are very similar techniques and fundamentals that we teach. That was huge for us to be able to know that he’s at least had that background, and some of the things we’re going to be doing are the same sort of things he was doing in college. From that standpoint, it’s just very reassuring."

As Okudah said last week, he played "a bunch of coverages" at Ohio State. He'll be prepared for whatever he's asked to do in Detroit. The Lions envision him as their No. 1 corner. They envision him making the kind of one-on-one plays that hold Patricia's defense together, like Stephon Gilmore does for the Patriots. Without Gilmore, who had an NFL-high 26 passes defended last season, New England's league-best defense would be exposed. 

With Okudah, Detroit's defense might come into its own. That's the hope, at least. 

"When things are on the line -- whether it’s third down, gotta-have-it situations, down in the red area -- at some point, everyone plays man," said Patricia. "And those are usually the biggest moments of the game. In those situations, you have to have guys who can come through. It’s so critical for us to find those players."

Patricia and Bob Quinn believe they've found one in Okudah. Now we'll see if Okudah can be better than the one they had in Darius Slay. It won't matter if the defense can't rev up the pass rush, and that remains a serious question mark. Third-round pick Julian Okwara should help. A big year from Trey Flowers would go a long way. 

But ultimately, the Lions are relying heavily on a rebuilt secondary, and hoping a rookie can be the pillar. By all accounts he can handle the weight. The question is whether the pieces around him, plugged in by Patricia, can handle the rest.