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Previewing Matt Patricia, Darius Slay and the Lions’ defense

Let’s take a look at the new-look Lions’ defense under former Patriots’ coordinator Matt Patricia.

New York Jets v Detroit Lions Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

While offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterback Matthew Stafford were hold overs from the last Lions’ regime, defensive-minded head coach Matt Patricia was the new hire. Widely regarded as Bill Belichick’s right hand that always has a yellow pencil on his ear, it’s time for Patricia to prove that he can lead a defense without his mentor.

In 2017, the Detroit Lions were the 27th-ranked defense, in terms of yards. They have no where to go but up this upcoming season under Patricia. Defensive stars Glover Quin, Ezekiel Ansah, Darius Slay and Jarrad Davis will be the names to watch for the Lions in 2018 to see if they can really turn their defensive play around.

In Week 1, the Jets put up 48 points, but actually the Lions’ defense was only responsible for 28 of those. The last three weeks of the preseason wasn’t pretty, as the Lions gave up 30, 33 and 35 points to the Giants, Buccaneers and Browns, respectively.

Here are the areas that 49ers’ fans should focus on, heading into Sunday’s matchup between the Lions and the 49ers.

Detroit’s ball-hawking secondary

Last season, if I asked you who the leader in interceptions would be before the season began, Lions’ corner Darius Slay wouldn’t have been in the first 10 choices. Yet, Slay was tied for the lead with eight interceptions in 2017.

Pair Slay with corner Nevin Lawson on the opposite side of the field, and put safeties Glover Quin and Quandre Diggs over the top and suddenly the secondary looks extremely scary. Pro Football Focus ranked the Lions’ secondary 12th in the NFL out of 32 teams. As PFF noted, the Lions’ secondary has some of the most underrated players, between Slay and Quin.

Slay has not allowed a passer rating higher than 55.6, while Quin’s PFF grade has been at least 80.0 for five of the last six seasons. Here’s some visual evidence of exactly what the Lions’ secondary has been capable of this season.

This was the first play of the season for the Lions’ defense, who forced Jets’ rookie Sam Darnold into a poor throw across the field, making it easy for Diggs to come back to the ball and grab the interception. Diggs was also able to take it back for a house call and help Detroit take a brief lead.

The next play captures Lawson, who stays step-for-step on a route with Jets’ wideout Quincy Enunwa. The pass from Darnold ends up being incomplete as a result, as his window to drop the ball into was small. 49ers’ receivers should expect the same blanket coverage from Slay and Lawson on the outside.

Up next, Darnold dumps the pass off to Enunwa, who’s immediately met by Lawson, who makes a strong solo tackle. This is another strength of the Lions, as they’re able to tackle well and not give up many yards after the catch.

The 49ers’ wide receiving corps are going to have their hands full with this Lions’ secondary. Especially with wideout Marquise Goodwin out for Sunday’s contest, it’s going to require rookies Dante Pettis and Richie James Jr. to step up and make big plays when their number is called. Slay is likely going to get the duty on veteran Pierre Garçon, while Lawson is going to be on the opposite side covering Pettis.

Lions’ pass rush — dependent on Ezekiel Ansah’s shoulder

A few years back, the Lions’ defensive line had the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Haloti Ngata and many other large, imposing pass rushers. Now, the Lions are dependent on DE Ezekiel Ansah, LBs Devon Kennard, Christian Jones and Eli Harold (of 49ers’ fame) to deliver sacks on an opposing quarterback.

Last season, the Lions were able to rack up 35 sacks, with Ansah leading the way at 12.0 sacks. The biggest question mark for Detroit heading into Sunday should be the health of Ansah. The Lions’ $17M man hurt his shoulder and hasn’t been 100 percent this week. As a result, he’s currently listed as questionable for Sunday’s contest in San Francisco, but remains optimistic that he will play.

The Lions racked up two sacks against the Jets this past Monday, but both sacks were different, as the first can be credited to the edge rusher, but the second should be credited to the back-end coverage holding up for long enough.

Here’s the first sack, where DE Ezekiel Ansah is turnt loose and able to rush the quarterback, as the Jets are in an obvious passing situation. Two Jets’ offensive linemen are trying to slow down Ansah, but to no avail, as Darnold is brought down for a loss.

On the next play, free-agent signing Kennard was able to finish off the sack on Darnold. The Jets’ quarterback had nowhere to go down the field with good coverage and as a result, takes the sack.

If Ansah plays, it significantly changes how the 49ers will manage their protections. His dominance requires the attention of multiple offensive linemen. With injuries at guard for the 49ers, Najee Toran is going to be starting. That could spell trouble, if the Lions are able to take advantage.

Matt Patricia’s defense is coming into San Francisco after being embarrassed at home by the Jets. Great teams have short-term memory loss and are able to turn it around on a short week. They have too much talent, assuming Ansah’s healthy, to be able to repeat a performance like that. The 49ers shouldn’t overlook the strong secondary and solid pass rush heading into Sunday.