The Lions have made significant changes on defense this offseason, which will likely result in a number of new starters and key contributors on that side of the ball in 2020. Those changes were necessary after the team struggled last season, finishing toward the bottom of the league in a number of key metrics on defense.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia and new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin both are looking forward to seeing how those new pieces blend in with the returning players, and how the competition in training camp shapes up at all three levels of the defense.
But as Patricia explained in a recent interview with Detroitlions.com, the competition isn't limited to finding the top four defensive linemen, the top three or four linebackers, the three best cornerbacks and two best safeties, it's about finding the 11 best players on that side of the ball and then building a defense around them. That's what Patricia means when he talks about being multiple on defense.
"I'm really trying to find the best players we can," Patricia said. "It's not like we're going to have four linebackers, four of this and four of that. It might be a situation where we come out of this saying, 'These are our top 10 guys.' Now obviously it can't be eight defensive lineman and one linebacker, but you want to find out what are the best guys you have and then we'll fit the scheme around the best players. We're just trying to get the best players on the field we can."
It's for that reason Patricia has always said that being multiple is his driving philosophy on defense -- Multiple fronts, the ability to play three or four linebackers at any given time, using sub packages that utilize a third safety and being versatile in the secondary.
"The defensive competition is always interesting to me because sometimes it's not necessarily just head to head," Patricia explained. "Sometimes it's position against position. It could be intermixed from that standpoint, which is what also gives us the flexibility and multiplicity of our defense."
It's one of the reasons why the Lions try to target players with multiple skill sets. Trey Flowers has the ability to play on the edge and move inside in certain packages. The Lions liked Da’Shawn Hand coming out of the draft a couple years back for his ability to play up and down the defensive line. Jamie Collins Sr. can stand up and rush from the edge, put his hand in the dirt and play a more traditional defensive end role, and move inside to one of the linebacker spots. Jahlani Tavai can play just about any linebacker spot, and he did as a rookie last year because of his size and skill set. Safety Tracy Walker can play in the box and also cover the middle of the field.
Now it's up to Patricia and Undlin to find the complementary pieces that fit together and help this defense become more multiple, versatile and a much improved unit over what they were a season ago.
"My whole thing on defense, and I've said this before, I have to find out, 'what do you do well?' Then how do I utilize that on the field and put that together," Patricia said.
"As opposed to, 'this is what we do,' and you have to fit round pegs in a square hole. I just think that for us, it's about 'what do you do well and can we utilize that on the field?' It's not always perfect, but that's what we try to do."