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O'HARA: Why interest in Lions' defense is so high

The curiosity over how the Detroit Lions will line up in their base defense under head coach Matt Patricia could continue without a definitive answer until opening day of the regular season – and perhaps longer.

That's assuming, of course, that the Lions have a base defense.

On the surface, it boils down to a simple choice – either the 4-3 alignment of the front seven that the Lions have used for the last 21 seasons, or the 3-4 that Patricia is identified with by his tenure with the New England Patriots.

From the day Patricia was hired on Feb. 5 through last week's OTA practice that gave the media its first live look at the Lions on the practice field, there have been more questions than answers about the defense. It is one of the hottest issues regarding the makeup of the team.

When asked about it at the Combine earlier this year, Patricia's response was focused more on the question than an answer.

"It's all relative," he said. "If you guys study film and watch the trends of football, 90 percent of it isn't even regular defense anymore. It's all sub. So trying to figure out what it is from there, it's a little different than just kind of a standard answer to a 4-3 or 3-4."

From that answer, "multiple" is the word that pops to the forefront. Nothing has happened in the last three months to change it.

But before taking a stab at delivering an early verdict when there are more clues to examine – watching the Lions practice in pads at training camp, and see how they line up in four preseason games at the top of that list – it's worth considering why the interest level over the 4-3 vs. 3-4 question is understandable.

Among other things, it's based on unequal parts of the Lions' history and tradition, personnel, the week to week matchups during the season, and how the Patriots' defense adjusted during his six seasons as coordinator.

Consider the following:

History/tradition: Historically, the Lions have run a 4-3 defense – four linemen, three linebackers -- that is familiar with fans and earned a place in the NFL's tradition with its performance.

The Lions had their version of the famed Fearsome Foursome in the 1960s. It was a dominating front four that had Roger Brown and Alex Karras at the tackles, Sam Williams and Darris McCord at the ends. That crew led the charge in sacking Packers quarterback Bart Starr 11 times in a 1962 revenge win on Thanksgiving Day.

In the 1970s and '80s it was the Silver Rush – led by Pro Bowlers Bubba Baker and Doug English – that terrorized quarterbacks.

The Lions switched to a 3-4 in 1985 with the arrival of Wayne Fontes as defensive coordinator, and later head coach through 1996.

But for the last 21 seasons – 1997 through 2017 under the reign of six head coaches– the 4-3 has been the Lions' staple through good and bad, and everything in between.

Personnel: The Lions' offseason roster lists 15 defensive linemen and 10 linebackers. The linemen are broken down to seven ends, six tackles and two others identified generically as defensive linemen. The 10 linebackers are listed as just that – linebackers. No middle. No outside. No inside.

Kerry Hyder Jr., who led the Lions with eight sacks in 2016 primarily as a defensive end is back after missing all of 2017 with an Achilles injury, said after last week's OTA practice that he isn't focused on what front the Lions play.

"We're all going to get in where we fit in," he said. "We all use our skills to the best of our ability. It changes every year on every team."

Patricia's Patriots history: The Patriots are known for being game-plan specific to match up against opponents from week to week.

The playoff seasons of the last two years are an example of that.

In the 2016 season playoffs, they opened all three games with three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.

In the 2017 season playoffs, they opened with four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs against the Titans and a 4-3 with four defensive backs against the run-heavy Jaguars in the AFC Championship.

In the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, it was a 3-3 front six with five defensive backs.

The breakdown: In six sudden-death postseason games with everything at stake, the Patriots opened up with three linemen four times and four linemen twice. Behind the front they had three linebackers five times, four once and five defensive backs five times.

Bottom line: The next question for Matt Patricia might be if he expects to use the 3-3-5, or will his defense be multiple.

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