When the Lions fired coach Matt Patricia on Saturday, they might have deflated Mitch Trubisky’s last life raft.
For parts of three years, Trubisky tore apart a defense littered with subpar players and, even worse, a coach too stubborn to change. Patricia insisted on playing man coverage because that’s how he rose to notoriety as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator.
It worked, like most things do, in New England. It failed, like most things do, in Detroit.
No one benefitted more than Trubisky. In four games against the Lions since coach Matt Nagy’s arrival, Trubisky has gone 4-0 with a 124.39 passer rating and thrown 12 touchdown passes and one interception. He has a 81.68 rating in all other games.
Or, put more bluntly: 21% of his career touchdown passes — and only 2.9% of his career interceptions — have come during those four Lions games.
No team played more man coverage in 2018, 2019 or 2020 than the Lions, according to Pro Football Focus. They’ve been remarkably bad at it, never finishing better than 27th in expected points per play while in Cover-1.
Trubisky, who has struggled reading zone defenses, carved it up. Man defenses give him better running lanes, too, when he scrambles.
With Patricia gone, though, Trubisky will — for the first time — have to expect the element of surprise. Given how poorly he played against the Packers, that could spell disaster.
The game Sunday is shaping up to be a lose-lose proposition for Trubisky. If he dominates a spiraling Lions team, it will be what he always has done. If he doesn’t, then fans will call for Nick Foles — who returned to practice 16 days after hurting his right hip — again.
“I think you have to expect [man coverage] because that’s who they are and that’s what they’ve done for the last 11 weeks,” Trubisky said Wednesday. “But you’ve gotta expect the unexpected with the new coach being in there. They might throw some different looks at us. So for us, it’s just worrying about what we’re doing on the offensive side of the ball, being in the right place at the right time, executing our plays, trying to take another step forward from last week. And obviously my focus is ball security and taking care of the football.”
He didn’t do that against the Packers. In his first start in nine weeks, he threw two interceptions and was strip-sacked for a touchdown.
Trubisky provided no evidence that time on the bench did him any good. Now he’ll have to adjust against the Lions, who will be led by interim coach Darrell Bevell, their offensive coordinator.
Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin, who has called plays all season, will do so again Sunday. Undlin will feel the freedom of not having to adhere to Patricia’s “Patriot Way,” playing man defense whether it works or not. Undlin told Detroit reporters this week that Patricia never held him back. When asked what will be different, he said that “you can’t change an entire defense in three days.”
Still, anticipating a new look is always a factor in preparing for a new coach, Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson said.
“But you can’t overwhelm yourself with that factor or what that may be,” Robinson said. “You know it may be something, but you can’t try to really prepare around the unknown. We know what their DNA is. We know what they like to play. For us, we just have to be prepared to adjust to whatever change or whatever that difference might be. We have to be ready to adjust to that.”
After firing Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn, the Lions will be more dangerous — or at least desperate. Like Trubisky, Nagy might be in a lose-lose position — he’s undefeated against the Lions in his career — but would be thrilled to snap the Bears’ five-game skid.
Nagy was quick to point out that the Bears-Lions series rarely produces a blowout. Fourteen of the last 17 matchups have been decided by eight points or fewer.
“Every year and every game we play, it’s always close — we know that,” he said. “And they understand that, so they are going to come out firing. They are a very talented football team across the board in all three phases, and we have to make sure that we just worry about us.
“When we worry about everybody else, then you don’t ‘do you’ right, and it’s no good. We have to worry about us and also understand who they are.”
The Lions will be more mysterious than usual. It’s becoming clearer by the day exactly who the Bears are.