The Detroit Lions are entering their fifth — and perhaps final — season of trying to build a winning organization with former New England executives, coaches, and players.
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Lions ownership retained general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia for this season, but their jobs are in jeopardy if the team does not at least contend for a spot in the playoffs.
“Our expectations for our team are the same as we discussed at the end of last season,” team owner Sheila Ford Hamp said.
To bounce back enough from a three-win season to have a winning record, Detroit’s defense has to get drastically better, and quarterback Matthew Stafford must stay healthy and on the field.
The Lions ranked No. 31 in the NFL on defense last season in their second year under Patricia, who was a Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator for the Patriots and were last in the league against the pass.
Quinn hired away from the Patriots in 2016, invested a lot in trying to improve a shaky defense. Detroit drafted Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah No. 3 overall. The team also added veterans on that side of the ball such as cornerback Desmond Trufant, linebacker Jamie Collins and tackle Danny Shelton.
Stafford, selected by Detroit No. 1 overall in 2009, easily had the best quarterback rating of his career last year. The Lions, though, found out how valuable Stafford is when they closed the season with a nine-game losing streak in large part because he missed eight games with a back injury. Detroit did sign journeyman Chase Daniel to be the No. 2 QB, but he has started just five games since making his NFL debut a decade ago.
The Lions’ strength should be their passing game with a talented and experienced trio at receiver with Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola. Tight end T.J. Hockenson along with pass-catching running backs Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift give Stafford even more options when he drops back.
The Lions opened last season by blowing an 18-point, fourth-quarter lead at Arizona and settling for a tie. It was a sign of problems to come for a team that had trouble staying ahead all season.
“Certainly a great learning lesson for us last year, trying to get over that hump to close those out in the fourth quarter,” Patricia said. “The last inch of it is always the hardest.”
Stafford has been telling the team it’s going to be “Dagger Time,” late in games. Hockenson said the team has adopted that mantra.
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“Everyone says `finish,’ but I think we wanted to change it up,” Hockenson said.
At the first team meeting of training camp, Patricia made it clear that how the team fared on third downs in the red zone would be a key this season. Patricia said those are four-point plays — the difference between a field goal or touchdown for or against the team.
“It’s a huge swing in the game,” Patricia told the players as they sat several feet away on the team’s indoor practice field.
The Lions were one of the teams in the NFL that had players with false-positive tests, including Stafford. The Lions, like a lot of teams, have concerns about a false positive test on a Friday preventing a player from traveling with them for a road game.
Detroit likely will likely lean on two rookies, Okudah and right guard Jonah Jackson, to start and a few others will probably play key roles. Swift, a second-round pick, and fifth-round receiver Quintez Cephus give speedy options as outlets. Third-round pick, Julian Okwara, may back up his brother, Romeo, at defensive end.
Patricia has been pleased with how quickly the rookies have acclimated.
“The guys have been able to really showcase what they do,” he said.
Hamp will ultimately make the decision whether Quinn and Patricia stay or go, and it seems unlikely one would be retained and one fired. She took over as principal owner and chairman of the Lions, succeeding her 94-year-old mother. Martha Firestone Ford ended her six-season run as the team’s owner in June. She took over when her husband, William Clay Ford, died.
“On paper, I am very pleased with our draft and free agency,” Hamp said. “I know coach Patricia is very pleased. … Yes, we plan and expect an improved team. I think we’re going to get that.”
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