by Derrik Klassen
Pass defense was a foreign concept to the 2018 Detroit Lions. Despite rostering one of the league's elite cornerbacks in Darius Slay, the Lions' secondary produced the second-worst pass defense DVOA rating (24.7%) and the fourth-lowest rate of interceptions per drive (0.42). They conceded throws all over the field as a result of having to field pedestrian cover corners such as Mike Ford, Teez Tabor (now cut), and Deshawn Shead (now cut) as well as a handful of others for one or two games during the year. It was a talentless wasteland that could not execute in head coach Matt Patricia's man coverage scheme.
The second-year head coach made it his mission to solve Detroit's dearth of cornerback talent through free agency. Detroit signed Justin Coleman, a fantastic nickel player from the Seahawks, and Rashaan Melvin, a talented outside cornerback primed for a revival after an up-and-down year with the Raiders. Fitting those two into the lineup alongside Slay was always going to be an obvious upgrade for the unit, but the trio of man coverage savants have exceeded expectations through three weeks of the season.
Football Outsiders projected the Lions to finish with the 21st-ranked defense. That's seven spots higher than they ranked in 2018, but only would have pushed the Lions up from "awful" to "not good." In large part because of the secondary's success, the Lions currently rank 10th in VOA. Fellow Outsider Rivers McCown ran the numbers on Detroit's current non-Slay cornerbacks (since everyone knows Slay is good) compared to the old group to confirm the obvious hunch that Detroit's secondary has become more productive. The difference is almost unfathomable.
|Lion's Share of Cornerback Credit|
|CB2||Mike Ford||13.1||23%||Rashaan Melvin||7.6||62%|
|CB3||Teez Tabor||12.5||38%||Justin Coleman||3.2||67%|
|CB4||DeShawn Shead||13.7||24%||Jamal Agnew||7.2||40%|
Considering Patricia's scheme relies on Slay taking on the opposing No.1 receiver on almost every snap, it is critical that the other cornerbacks do their jobs. Slay rarely gets help from safeties or linebackers, so he ends up surrendering his fair share of receptions simply because it is not possible to play 40 snaps a game against the league's elite receivers without getting beat a few times. When everyone else does their job, Slay taking on that responsibility bolsters the entire defense, and the handful of receptions he gives up are fine in the grand scheme of things. After not ever being able to make that dynamic work in 2018, the Lions have figured it out with their influx of talent in 2019.
Of the Lions' new additions in the secondary, Coleman is worthy of the most praise. Coleman is primarily a slot cornerback whose smooth hips and ball skills are as good as anyone in the league. Regardless of a wide receiver's alignment (on or off the ball), route stem, or athletic ability, Coleman shows no issues finding a way into his hip pocket. His understanding of how to press at the line of scrimmage and fight with receivers down the field to slow them down is unrivaled among slot cornerbacks. Somehow, some way, Coleman is always in position to make a play on the ball.
Here is Coleman lined up directly across from Christian Kirk, Arizona's No. 3 receiver to the trips set (the innermost receiver). Coleman is patient through Kirk's release and does not make a move to strike his chest until the wideout fully declares the outside stem. He then drives the receiver's release wide and nearly forces him to run into the No. 2 receiver (Larry Fitzgerald, 11). Kirk doesn't get a chance to really accelerate down the field until about 10 yards deep, but by then, Coleman has earned a good position to run with Kirk and disrupt his hands/arms throughout the route. Coleman never allows Kirk to leave arm's length and makes a perfect play on the ball despite having his back turned the entire time. Coleman had to find the ball only by seeing Kirk's arms go up and timing his disruption based off of that. There are maybe a handful of other cornerbacks in the league who play with that blend of discipline, athletic ability, and advanced ball skills.
Coleman came up clutch on a somewhat similar play late in the fourth versus Philadelphia last week. The Eagles had the ball on third-and-8 at their own 22-yard line with 2:31 left in the fourth quarter, trailing the Lions by three points. It was do or die for Philly.
Lined up 10 yards off the No. 2 receiver to the trips side, Coleman was ready to handle any vertical stem Nelson Agholor (13) threw at him. Agholor runs his stem to about 7 yards before bending it toward the sideline, then bending it again down the field to get vertical. The idea of the route is to snap it off near the sticks to get the cornerback to come down in fear of giving up the conversion, but Coleman doesn't bite. Coleman moseys down to Agholor's quick outside break while remaining in position to flip his hips and run. The moment Agholor tries to break his route up the field, Coleman matches him and stacks on top of his inside shoulder. In cutting off Agholor's inside shoulder and playing over the top of him, Coleman is able to control all of Agholor's movements and effectively box him out from the ball without having to be any degree of physical that would draw a penalty. Agholor gets pinned to the sideline and Coleman forces the desperation throw to the ground. Another wide receiver wearing No.13, another incompletion at the hands of Coleman.
Coleman is not only good at playing vertically, as the past couple of clips may suggest. That is where he is at his best, but Coleman can match sudden short route breaks like the best of 'em. He is as complete of a slot cornerback as they come.
Coleman is in the slot on the left side of the formation in this clip. The key here is disrupting the receiver's outside break despite only having access to the inside shoulder. Coleman finds a way to jolt the receiver right before he goes to break, then drapes himself all over the receiver's back just enough to slow down his path without tripping him up to force a penalty. Similar to the first clip, Coleman finishes the play by disrupting the catch point using only the information provided to him by the wide receiver's hands going up for the ball.
While the next four thousand words could go on, clip after clip, highlighting Coleman's brilliance this season, we'll stop here to pay Melvin his dues.
Melvin's play this season may be more impressive than Coleman's in that Melvin wasn't supposed to be as good as he is. Everyone expected Coleman to perform when he was signed, but Melvin was kind of a shot in the dark given his streaky performance as part of an atrocious Raiders defense in 2018. For whatever reason, Melvin has completely flipped a switch this season and bloomed into as reliable of a No. 2 cornerback as any team could ask for.
Though Melvin is technically an outside cornerback, Patricia is not opposed to kicking Melvin inside if it makes for a better matchup. The clip below features Melvin in the slot to the left side of the formation with Coleman manning the outside. The two defensive backs are likely flipped because of the wide receiver matchups, as regular outside receiver Mike Williams (81) is in the slot and typical slot receiver Dontrelle Inman (15) is out wide. Melvin has the physical profile and demeanor to handle a stronger, taller receiver like Williams in the red zone.
Melvin gets into Williams' frame on this play and rides him tight to the sideline. In jamming Williams at the line effectively, Melvin was able to earn a stacked position on Williams' inside shoulder and cut off any clear window for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers tries to chuck a 50-50 ball to Williams, but like Coleman in the previous clips, Melvin leaps in tandem with Williams and disrupts any reasonable chance at a reception.
To step back a week further, Week 1 best showcased Melvin's ability as an outside press cornerback. While he can run down the field and play vertically, there were a number of instances where he punked a Cardinals receiver at the line and gave them nowhere to take their route.
Melvin is lined up over Kirk at the bottom of the screen. As soon as the ball is snapped, Melvin attacks Kirk and grills right into his frame. Kirk tries to cut inside to break free, but Melvin matches him step for step while working toward inside positioning on the potential catch-up. Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray ends up throwing the slant route to Kirk without registering how open it was and nearly threw a pick directly into Melvin's hands. It is tough to earn such strong inside position on that short of a route, but Melvin has the attitude to get it done.
Beyond individual players, it's also worth mentioning some of the coverage wrinkles Patricia will throw in to make life easier on the secondary. The shuffling around of players to create matchups is certainly helpful, but that is most often done in man coverage. The assignment or general principle of the coverage doesn't change, but the matchups do. Where Patricia's creativity really shines is in what he does to get his edge players involved in coverage.
Patricia already had Devon Kennard in place from last season, but he also added Trey Flowers, formerly of the Patriots, this offseason. Both players are capable of fanning out into the flat or underneath area to help out in coverage. In many cases, that just means getting up out of a pass-rushing stance to mug a slot receiver, but that can go a long way in disrupting a quarterback's progression.
Flowers and Kennard, respectively, crush the offense's slot receivers trying to stem inside on each of these plays. In both clips, the receiver is either knocked down entirely or severely impeded. The quarterback in each clip tries to peek their way at the snap, but the moment they get tagged by Detroit's edge players, they have to move their eyes elsewhere.
Even though the receiver in the second clip kind of runs into open grass well after he was disrupted, the quarterback had no business looking his way because he had to move on to his other reads so as to give the play a chance. The quarterback can not stand dormant in the pocket hoping that the receiver eventually finds his footing in time.
Detroit's pass defense is far from perfect. The cornerbacks still struggle to match comfortably in zone coverages and the linebackers are liabilities if they are asked to do anything but flow to running backs on short routes out of the backfield. Compared to last year's joke of a unit, though, this new and improved pass defense is a godsend. Detroit's pass defense is now a central part of why they are competitive rather than their Achilles heel.
For as well as the Lions' secondary has played to this point, they will face their toughest matchup of the year when they host the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. The Chiefs' offense has picked up right where it left off last year and has not shown any signs of slowing down.
The good news is, if anything is going to hinder the Chiefs offense, it's good press coverage across the board. That's how the Patriots slowed down the Chiefs in the playoffs and Patricia will surely deploy a similar strategy. Even the Arizona Cardinals defense had some success last season against Kansas City by playing quality press coverage, particularly on Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. This is as good an opportunity as any for Patricia to prove his defensive genius and for Detroit's secondary to work themselves into the national conversation as one of the better units in the league.