Even in preseason, is it time to be concerned about Detroit Lions?

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

DETROIT — The images were far too familiar. Matthew Stafford dropping back, seeing his offensive line accordion in front of him.

When he was on the sidelines, he saw his defense do exactly the opposite: Allow his quarterbacking counterparts to get all the time they needed to find an open man and complete a pass. Or have a running back have an easy lane to run through.

This was a theme of 2017 for the Lions – lack of protection for Stafford and lack of pressure on opponents. And it was among the things Detroit supposedly had fixed heading into this season, particularly the bit about keeping Stafford upright. Yet in the second preseason game, none of that really happened.

Stafford, when he was in for three series, was sacked twice. All night, Detroit’s running backs had little to no room to run. Giants backup quarterback Davis Webb had enough time to complete 14 of 20 passes and not get sacked. And New York’s top two running backs – neither of whom was super rookie Saquon Barkley – averaged over 5 yards per carry.

If all of this sounds like a repetition of past years, well …

“It looked bad,” offensive lineman Kenny Wiggins said.

Yes, it is still early. Preseason being preseason, everything should be viewed with the caveats of the lack of game-planning and nuanced play-calling along with players themselves getting into shape and fewer reps to find a rhythm. But as many veterans know and what has played out year over year is this: Early can get late in the NFL faster than any player or coach would like. So a performance like this, preseason be darned, is reason for concern heading into when games really count three weeks from now.

This isn’t a judge of the final score of either preseason game. It’s more that when the starters were in, nothing looked particularly good other than a play here or there. The players and Matt Patricia said all the things you figured they’d say after a game like Friday – they have to get better, it’s still early, it’s preseason. But there was also some acknowledgement of, well, how rough it looked.

“It’s disheartening to see us not perfect our technique. It’s disheartening to see us not execute what we’ve been executing all week,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. “It’s disheartening not to see certain things that you sit in a building from morning till night going over and then when you get on the field you don’t see it done.

“Like I said, we got two more weeks and [Saturday] is the first day to start correcting these situations and start correcting to stop that run. Because if you don’t stop the run you have a lot of great NFL teams in the league that have good running backs and O-lines that can just move that ball whenever they choose to.”

Every area had issues. Matt Prater missed a field goal. TJ Jones had a drop that led to an interception. The Lions looked discombobulated and at points without any sort of energy.

Had Stafford and the starters played an entire game it’s possible things would have looked different. But based on the small sample size, the Lions look far away from the team they need to be to have success this year. Patricia acknowledged as much, calling what the Lions have to do a “big job in front of us” and that his team didn’t play well at any position.

There’s no denying any of that. It looked like it live. The tape essentially confirmed it. And while yes, it is early, if the Lions don’t get things fixed over the next two weeks things could be really problematic once games start counting in September.

“We have to come together as a group,” Jean Francois said. “The coaches can talk until they’re blue in the face. We have to come together as a team and we have to show Matt Patricia that we can master everything that he asks us to do.

“Because if we don’t, it’s going to be a long season and we ain’t trying to have a long season around here.”


Photo: Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

Would unlikely Khalil Mack trade make sense for Lions?

Every week during the preseason, we’ll be taking some of your questions for a Detroit Lions mailbag. To ask a question for a future Mailbag, use the hashtag #LionsMailbag on Twitter or email michael.rothstein@espn.com.

Now, on to this week’s questions.

Michael, there’s definitely a difference with Matt Patricia instead of Jim Caldwell. Practices are more intense. There’s more running. The pacing is different and, obviously, the defensive scheme is different. Every coach is going to bring his own philosophy and that has been obvious.

As far as specifically Miles Killebrew, I don’t think what Patricia is doing with him is that much different than what Teryl Austin tried to do with him. Austin attempted to put Killebrew in the best position, which was a sub-package player who was essentially a hybrid linebacker/safety. It seems like that’s what Detroit is looking at Killebrew as again. The difference this year is that Killebrew – in my opinion – hasn’t looked quite as good. Now there’s a long way to go between now and the regular season, but the combination of adding Tracy Walker as a third-round pick as well as the flexibility of Quandre Diggs and the re-signing of Tavon Wilson has put Killebrew in a tough spot, roster-wise. It’s why I’ve consistently mentioned him as a possible trade target. That would only increase if this coaching staff believes in Charles Washington as much as the last staff did, particularly on special teams.

But Detroit is trying to put Killebrew in a bunch of different spots right now to see which one, if any, fits best. The Lions did this with a lot of players in the past; Austin happened to be quite good at that. Don’t think the comparison to Kyle Van Noy is accurate because Van Noy was always going to be a player who was better in a 3-4 system – something obvious in New England. If Van Noy was still a Lion now, I think he would have found a role in this defense.

On the face of it, it seems insane, Ben, but with every day Khalil Mack doesn’t report to camp and if the Raiders really believe they can’t sign him, it could be possible that Oakland would try to make a deal. First the logistics on that. For any team to trade for Mack, it have to be convinced it could sign him to a long-term deal. Unlike Major League Baseball and the NBA, NFL general managers and head coaches hoard draft picks like the rarest of diamonds. And if I’m the Raiders – again, this is me being the Raiders­ – I’m asking for a reasonable amount of draft picks for Mack. So there’s that. I also would do everything I could, if I were the Raiders, to try and retain Mack.

With that being said, if I’m Bob Quinn, I’m at least poking around while I’m in Napa, California, this week to see what it would take to trade for the star pass-rusher. There’s no question Detroit needs pass-rush help, and the team’s top pass-rusher, Ezekiel Ansah, is playing on the franchise tag, has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and turns 30 next year. Trading for Mack – depending on what it would cost – would give Patricia an elite pass-rusher and give Detroit’s talented secondary an established pass-rusher to create havoc. Do I think it would happen? No, I don’t. But if I’m Quinn I’m at least asking about it just in case.

Patricia implements more physical workouts

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matt Patricia had players lay down on the ground, offense on one side, defense on the other. At the whistle, they popped back up and the offensive player — the ball carrier — then had to try to beat the defensive player one-on-one.

On the first padded day of Detroit Lions practice Sunday, they ran a modified version of the Oklahoma drill — just one example of the physicality and intensity under Patricia, the first-year Lions head coach, who is trying to change the culture of a team that hasn’t won a division title since 1993.

To do so, Patricia said at some point the Lions will tackle to the ground — a stark difference from former coach Jim Caldwell, who rarely had live tackling during practices. Patricia does want to keep his players upright for the most part, but he recognizes there are times that tackling has to happen.

Just to be prepared.

“At some point you have to go live. You have to be able to experience that both offensively and defensively because you don’t want to do it for the first time in a game,” Patricia said. “You have to be able to get in good position. There’s certainly a manner in which we can practice in pads where we can thud each other up and be in a good hit position and know that from the strike standpoint everything is clean and we’re in good space but then not really follow through or try to finish at that exact moment.

“But at some point you have to transition into the finish and be able to make sure you understand what that feels like and that we’re doing it the right way.”

It led to Patricia calling Sunday “the most exciting day of the year,” because it’s the first time his team is able to put on pads and actually have more consistent contact. It’s also the first time he had a team under his control in pads for the first time.

Patricia said while working in pads is something that is made a big deal of, he believes players should always want to play in pads for both protection and to get used to it since they’ll be wearing full pads during games. It also forces players to get to another conditioning level because of some restrictions pads place on players.

The potential for more tackling and contact is just one area where Patricia has changed Lions practices. Detroit does more running under Patricia than it did under Caldwell — including running laps for mistakes made in practice, something the defense had to do at least once Sunday.

On Friday, Patricia opened his first training camp practice by working on goal-line strategy because of the importance Patricia places on it in games. The Lions offensively struggled in goal-line and short-yardage situations in 2017, something general manager Bob Quinn said after the draft bothered him during Caldwell’s final season.

Now, as the pads go on, they can work on that even more. The players noticed an increased energy having pads on as well. The linemen can hit. The players move just a little faster. For the third straight day, practice ran at least two hours.

“It’s definitely physical and that’s what we want to be, a physical team,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “So we’re out here working hard and the most dominant team wins every Sunday, so that’s what we have to be and that’s how we practice.

“And we’re all taking to it.”

Lions have revamped run game but still have pass-rush questions

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

The Detroit Lions ended their offseason program on Thursday. Here’s a look at how they fared:

Offseason goals: The Lions had three realistic goals this offseason — figure out how to work under new coach Matt Patricia, fix the run game, and improve the team’s pass rush. All three of those are still works in progress as the Lions continue to get comfortable with Patricia. They improved their run game on paper but potentially not in reality and still have major pass-rush questions.

How they fared: Too soon to tell

Daniel Mears/Detroit News via AP

Move I liked: The hiring of Patricia. It was the biggest move the team could make in the offseason. It targeted Patricia as the coach it wanted from the beginning and then went out and landed him. That’s something the Lions haven’t always been able to say throughout the past six decades. Whether it will work out remains to be seen, but at least they can say they landed the guy they wanted (although their vetting process later came into question when a 22-year-old sexual assault indictment that never went to trial surfaced in May).

Move I didn’t like: Essentially ignoring the pass rush. The Lions hired a defensive guru in Patricia and then didn’t do too much to back up the side of the ball he’s most familiar with. Sure, the draft didn’t exactly fall how the Lions might have wanted it to if they were going to target defensive players, but it became clear they had a plan to improve the run game through the draft. That meant only one front-seven pick — fourth-rounder Da’Shawn Hand — along with no established playmakers added through free agency. There’s a reason Detroit’s front seven is still its biggest unknown.

Biggest question still to be answered in training camp: Besides the aforementioned pass rush, it’s how the run game is actually going to work. Detroit added two offensive linemen, a fullback and a potential starting running back (Kerryon Johnson) during the draft. But until pads actually come on, it’s tough to tell whether the league’s worst rushing offense from a season ago will get markedly better in 2018.

Quotable: “I’ve been talking about that since January. I think, like I said I think the other night, last night or the night before, we don’t play until September. So, I think we added some offensive linemen, we’ve added a running back in free agency, we’ve added a running back in the draft, so I think on paper should our run game be better? Yeah, probably. Now, it’s up to the players, the coaches and all of us to make sure we get out to the spring portion of our practices to implement the new guys into the system. Get to training camp and we’ll have a very physical training camp. We’ll see how everything comes together. So, I think the pieces are there; now it’s really up to, you know, all of us in the building to kind of make sure these guys produce at a high level.” – Lions general manager Bob Quinn

Salary-cap space: $9,166,585 per the NFLPA

2018 draft picks: Round 1: Frank Ragnow, OL, Arkansas; Round 2: Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn; Round 3: Tracy Walker, DB, Louisiana; Round 4: Da’Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama; Round 6: Tyrell Crosby, OL, Oregon; Round 7: Nick Bawden, FB, San Diego State.

Undrafted rookie free agents signed: Deontez Alexander, WR, Franklin; Al-Rasheed Benton, LB, West Virginia; Amari Coleman, CB, Central Michigan; Antwuan Davis, CB, Texas; Josh Fatu, DT, USC; Mike Ford, CB, Southeast Missouri; Chris Jones, CB, Nebraska; Chris Lacy, WR, Oklahoma State; Chad Meredith, LB, Southeast Missouri; John Montelus, OL, Virginia; Beau Nunn, OL, Appalachian State; Brandon Powell, WR, Florida; Teo Redding, WR, Bowling Green; Ryan Santoso, P, Minnesota; JoJo Wicker, DL, Arizona State.

Unrestricted free agents signed: Devon Kennard, LB; Christian Jones, LB; Kenny Wiggins, OL; Sylvester Williams, DT; DeShawn Shead, DB; Luke Willson, TE; LeGarrette Blount, RB; Levine Toilolo, TE; Matt Cassel, QB; Wesley Johnson, OL; Jonathan Freeny, OL; Trevor Bates, LB; Adam Bisnowaty, OL; Wes Saxton, TE; Marcus Lucas, TE.

Restricted free agents signed: TJ Jones, WR.

Players acquired via trade: None


Matt Patricia runs a much different practice than Jim Caldwell

By Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Matt Patricia’s practices at the helm of the Detroit Lions are a bit different than Jim Caldwell’s. After watching five of them throughout the course of the spring, there’s no doubt about that.

Patricia’s practices, at least by feel, lasted longer. They also seemed to have less full-team work involved than 7-on-7 periods and individual position group time intermixed with special teams. Considering the tree he comes from (Bill Belichick and, by extension, Bill Parcells), that should come as no surprise.

The Lions – like the Patriots before – did a good bit of running concluding practices, either with gassers or jogging. Patricia also used running as an admonishment tool – something I never remember Caldwell doing in his four years in Detroit. Not saying one is better than the other, but it’s just different.

“It’s just practice,” Patricia said. “So I’m not sure what was done before, but we’re just trying to practice.”

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

There seemed, throughout the five open practices, to be a premium spent on taking correct angles for both ball-carriers and would-be tacklers. A lot of special teams work. And not nearly as much rotation in first-team units – at least when the first-teamers were there – throughout those days.

There has been adjustment for Patricia, too, during his first spring as Detroit’s head coach.

“Everything is new, everything is different. You know, you can always prepare for how much you’re not, you get divided in a couple different ways from what needs to be done from a team standpoint,” Patricia said. “You’d love to be involved more with every minute of football, but you just can’t. The requirements are different. So, that’s kind of the biggest adjustment from that standpoint.

“What’s good is that I can go in at the end, at the end of the day, or in the middle of the meeting or in the morning and kind of just make changes and I don’t really have to worry about it.”

How much he has adjusted is still an unknown and could be more evident once training camp starts.


College game prepped new Lions DC Paul Pasqualoni for return

By Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Even when he was working as a position coach the past four years for the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Boston College, Paul Pasqualoni still worked like he would one day get back to this.

One day, he’d return to making defensive decisions – and it took his former Syracuse graduate assistant to get him there. The Detroit Lions will run mostly Patricia’s multiple front defense, but Pasqualoni is expected to be calling the plays this fall.

“I’ve always prepared like that was going to be a responsibility you needed to be prepared for,” Pasqualoni said Tuesday, the first time he spoke with the media since being hired in February. “Even as an assistant coach I was always kind of in that mode.”

Michael Rothstein/ESPN

Lions coordinator Paul Pasqualoni wants to build a defense that stops the run and makes QBs uncomfortable. Michael Rothstein/ESPN.com
Pasqualoni called defenses in the NFL for Miami in 2008 and 2009 and then in Dallas in 2010 and part of his head coaching stint at Connecticut from 2011 to 2013. He was part of the reason Syracuse had a strong defense when he ran that program from 1991 to 2004.

It has been almost a decade since he has been an NFL decision-maker, though. Those offenses incorporate more read option and have found ways to use certain players in specialized roles to take advantage of their skills.

Even though he hax been away from that part of coaching, where he has been has actually helped.

“If they’ve changed, they’ve gone a little bit more to the college-spread set, the zone-read set, so the past two years in the ACC, I promise you, I’ve seen that a little bit, up front and very, very close and personal,” Pasqualoni said. “So if anything, that’s probably helped me a little bit.

“And there’s been some good quarterbacks in that league, too. A couple good ones. It’s helped.”

Among those quarterbacks: Now-NFL quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Brad Kaaya.

For the 68-year-old coaching lifer, it’s a long way from his first job as an assistant coach at Cheshire (Conn.) High School in 1972 when he was also teaching physical education at three different elementary schools in his hometown. That path eventually led to Syracuse, where he began as a linebackers coach and then the head coach – where he worked with Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney and hired a bunch of the current Lions staff, including Patricia.

After being fired following the 2004 season after a change in athletic directors, Pasqualoni bounced around a bit before Patricia called this offseason, offering him a job to run his defense – not dissimilar to when another former Syracuse assistant under Pasqualoni, Steve Addazio, hired him to go to Boston College in 2016.

This staff has even more Syracuse connections. As he spoke Tuesday, Brian Stewart – whom he hired as a defensive backs coach in 2001 at the school – was a few feet away also chatting with the media as a member of the Lions staff. And it’s well known how many Syracuse-Pasqualoni connections there are on the Lions’ staff now in both the coaches and support staff to those coaches.

A lot of that comes because of Pasqualoni, who was all of their bosses at one point or another.

“The Syracuse program was a developmental program. We worked hard, tried to develop players, tried to always be prepared, and the GAs who came in there had a lot of responsibility, had a lot of jobs they had to do,” Pasqualoni said. “They worked very, very hard at it, and a lot of good things happened to a lot of those guys.”

Other than Patricia, though, Pasqualoni’s job will be the highest profile. The two of them together will be looked at if Detroit’s defense fails. And it’ll be Pasqualoni coordinating Patricia’s vision for the defense, a philosophy the two of them have spent years honing.

“Defensive philosophy is going to be smart, you know, to be tough, and that means to be able to perform at a very dependable, high level on a consistent basis,” Pasqualoni said. “Like you’ve heard a hundred times, stop the run and try to make the quarterback uncomfortable. You’re not going to sack the guy, but there has to be in a variety of ways discomfort created for the guy playing the quarterback position, whether it be disguise or pressure, whatever it might be. You just can’t let quarterbacks at this level operate and be comfortable because in the end, you know, they’ll get you.

“In a nutshell, that’s kind of it.”