Inside the Detroit Lions: Having 'bad intentions' a good thing on defense

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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HOUSTON – They have a saying in Allen Park, get to the ball with bad intentions, and in Saturday’s preseason loss to the Houston Texans, the Detroit Lions did that for one of the first times in Matt Patricia’s tenure.

The Lions turned in another mostly uninspiring performance Saturday.

They couldn’t muster any points against the Texans’ first-team defense, couldn’t stop the Texans’ first-team offense, and couldn’t get out of their own way with 11 penalties.

Detroit Lions' Andrew Adams intercepts a pass intended for Jester Weah of the Houston Texans in the second quarter at NRG Stadium on August 17, 2019 in Houston.

But they also forced a pair of turnovers, and for a team that ranked 31st in the NFL in takeaways last season, that might be a good omen.

“Honestly, it’s something that’s going to be infectious to the rest of the defense and it’s going to be an attitude that’s contagious like, getting to the ball with bad intentions and actually using those bad intentions,” linebacker Jarrad Davis said after the game. “Not just hitting a guy, but working on looking at the ball, seeing it and striking it. Getting it out.”

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The Lions were wretched at “getting it out” last year, and that’s a big reason why they regressed to a 6-10 record. They forced just seven fumbles, intercepted only seven passes and finished the season with a minus-five turnover differential.

The best teams in the league, meanwhile, the Patriots and Rams, combined to force 58 turnovers and both finished in the top five in the NFL in takeaways.

The correlation between turnover differential and record has always been an easy one to spot.

Last year, the top seven teams in the league in turnover differential all the made playoffs while only two of the 14 teams that finished even or with a negative differential reached the postseason.

Detroit Lions' Will Harris (43) celebrates with Anthony Pittman (57) and Romeo Okwara, right, after returning a fumble for a touchdown against Houston Texans during the first half Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019, in Houston.

As Davis said, turnovers mean “everything cause it’s winning.”

“A lot of these guys in the league right now, they carry the ball loose cause they’re trying to make a play,” Davis said. “They’re trying so hard to make a play that sometimes that arm comes out and the ball. It’s a window for us to get the ball out and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”

While there’s no debating that takeaways, particularly fumbles, are somewhat luck-driven — where the ball bounces plays a key role in who recovers it — the Lions are quick to note that NFL teams create their own luck in many ways.

The more players you have swarming to the ball, for instance, the more likely you are to recover a fumble. And the more dedicated you are attacking the ball while it’s still in the opponent’s hand, the more likely you are to knock it loose.

Patricia said the best part about the turnovers the Lions created Saturday is that they were caused by some of the techniques coaches have stressed in practice.

Romeo Okwara punched loose a second-quarter fumble that Will Harris returned for a touchdown when he was the third defender in on a tackle and came slugging for the ball.

Detroit Lions' Amani Oruwariye (No. 46) congratulates Will Harris (No. 43) after Harris' touchdown in the second quarter against the Houston Texans on August 17, 2019 in Houston.

Amani Oruwariye made the initial stop on Steven Mitchell, Jamal Agnew came over to help take Mitchell down, and by the time Okwara got there, there was enough space between the ball and Mitchell’s body that it was easy to dislodge.

“I saw somebody raking at the ball and then I saw the ball on the ground and that’s when practice plays itself into the game,” Harris said. “I just kind of did second nature, what came to me, that I’ve done in practice.”

The Lions forced their second turnover a few minutes later, with the Texans driving deep in Lions territory. Joe Webb tried to squeeze a pass to Jester Weah between two defenders, and Andrew Adams came flying in from behind as the third defender to intercept the pass.

Adams, more than any other Lion this preseason, has shown a knack for creating turnovers. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t have an interception in practice, and Patricia said his success is a product of his football acumen.

“Intellect would probably be the starting point,” Patricia said. “He’s a really smart player, he’s a smart guy, he studies really hard. He plays with great emotion. He’s a high energy guy, loves to play the game. He plays fast in those situations, so it’s good.”

Having a couple August takeaways, of course, doesn’t mean the Lions will be able to force turnovers consistently this fall.

Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia looks on from the sideline during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium, Aug. 17, 2019 in Houston.

They didn’t have any takeaways in their preseason opener, and they don’t have the type of dominant pass rusher that’s often a multiplying factor when it comes to creating turnovers, both fumbles (via sacks) and interceptions (with pressure).

But in a game that largely didn’t matter, the Lions at least found a sliver of good they can take with them as they get ready for the regular season.

“We’ve been trying to work really hard at that stuff,” Patricia said. “Some of the techniques with the turnovers today were actually executed with stuff that we practiced. That was good from that standpoint. We’d like to try to build on that and I think it’s one of those things where you put such an emphasis on it that when it finally happens hopefully it catches fire and it kind of goes that going forward. But certainly, we just got to do it every single week.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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