OAKLAND – Lions-Raiders Final Thoughts: Will we see the long-awaited unveiling of head coach Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme? What do we see from Patricia in his first game ever as a head coach? Positions to watch, rookies to watch, and Random Thoughts – Matthew Stafford’s play time, new rules and other issues:
Patricia’s defense: One of the great sports mysteries of 2018 – if not this entire decade – has been how the Lions’ will line up in their base defense under new head coach Matt Patricia.
Don’t expect a definitive answer tonight. The Lions might run a 3-4 in some situations, a 4-3 in others, and a variation of both in other situations.
There was a touch – or maybe a ton – of hyperbole in the answer when Patricia was asked if one of the greatest sports mysteries in recent Detroit sports history would be solved when his defense takes the field tonight against the Raiders.
“Just in general, we’re just going to hopefully try to be alright when we get out there,” Patricia said. “We’ll see what that looks like.
“I think you guys will have a full understanding of everything we’re going to do the entire season when we get done with the game on Friday. I think that’s pretty much what my plan is, to just give you guys everything.
“We’ll go from there. OK?”
The Lions have a history of being a base 4-3 team – four defensive linemen, three linebackers. That dates back to the 1950s and ‘60s, when their front four was known as the Fearsome Foursome. They remained a 4-3 team through the Silver Rush days of Doug English and Bubba Baker.
It changed in 1985 when Wayne Fontes came from Tampa to be defensive coordinator and brought the 3-4 with him. That lasted until 1997, when Fontes was fired as head coach and replaced by Bobby Ross. Ross restored the 4-3, and the Lions have run it through the 2017 season.
The interest from fans and media is understandable because of the Lions’ history, but Patricia didn’t come here to follow history. He’s here to write his own.
My thought: The word “multiple” firmly comes to mind, and tonight is a bare-bones look at the defense that will be run in the season. No team shows everything in the preseason.
Coach watch: It’s only a preseason game, but Patricia will be in the spotlight because it’s his first game on the sideline leading the Lions in a game.
It will be the first glimpse at his gameday demeanor. Will he be as animated as he’s been in training camp? How decisive will he be in throwing the challenge flag? How aggressive will he be in making strategic decisions – like going for it on fourth down, punting vs. kicking a field goal?
The coach watch might be as interesting as the game.
Position to watch: It’s the offensive line, and nothing comes close in terms of interest level – and perhaps importance.
Everything starts up front on offense, and this year’s unit has the makings of being the best since 2012, when there were veteran starters in all five spots with first-round draft pick Riley Reiff as the sixth man.
The key addition this year is first-round draft pick Frank Ragnow, who was put in with the starters at left guard and has looked like he belongs there on merit, not draft position.
“I feel like I don’t hear his name much in meetings, which is a good thing, right?” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “There’s not a lot of, ‘Hey Frank, you’re going the wrong way.’ Or, ‘Hey Frank, you’re doing the wrong thing.’”
Frankly, that seems like a change from some other players in some other years.
Rookies to watch: Kerryon Johnson had some impressive moments in the combined practices against the Raiders. That showed real promise that he could be a three-down back, with equal ability as a runner and receiver.
Two other rookies to watch are receivers Teo Redding and Brandon Powell. Both were undrafted and have made plays.
The two combined practices were the closest experience to a real game, and the preseason game is a step up from that. There are no restrictions on full-speed contact, as there are in controlled practices.
Raiders players are competing for jobs, too.
On Matthew Stafford: He played only one possession in last year’s first preseason game. It lasted four snaps and ended on an interception. One possession seems right for tonight, given that his receiving corps in largely intact.
On the starting offensive line: It could remain in after Stafford goes out to get extra work. Its job doesn’t really change with a quarterback switch unless it’s to a running quarterback. Matt Cassel and Jake Rudock aren’t scramblers.
Front seven rotation: Regardless of what front they’re in, rushing the quarterback and stopping the run with an emphasis on more gap control are important.
Kickoff rules: The new rules could change strategy on how the ball is kicked and on return tactics. Among other things, the cover team has to line up within a yard of the line of scrimmage, which eliminates the running start. Both sides – cover and returns – have to adjust and adapt.
Helmet rule: As often happens with rules changes that have high visibility, officials call them tighter in the preseason to make a point. That likely will happen again this year. Players will adjust, just as they do in baseball to home plate umpires who have different strike zones.