Lions poised to make run at favored Packers, Vikings in NFC North

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (25) breaks away for a long run during a Nov. 6, 2017 game against Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

Fifth in a 13-part series on the opponents the Green Bay Packers will face during the 2018 regular season.

GREEN BAY - It’s hard to find proof that Jim Caldwell did a poor job in four seasons as coach of the Detroit Lions.

Prior to Caldwell’s arrival in 2014, the Lions had made the playoffs just once since the turn of the century: They went 10-6 in 2011 and lost in the wild-card round to the New Orleans Saints. Before that, their most recent playoff appearance was 1999, a year after legendary running back Barry Sanders retired. 

Caldwell compiled records of 11-5, 7-9, 9-7 and 9-7 in four seasons and guided the franchise to the playoffs twice, which is no small feat in a division featuring the Green Bay Packers and the resurgent Minnesota Vikings. However, the Lions never won a playoff game under Caldwell and lost in the wild-card round both times.

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That, perhaps, was the ultimate nail in Caldwell’s coffin, and the Lions decided to make a change during the offseason. Caldwell was fired, and Matt Patricia was hired.

Patricia, 43, had been a faithful servant of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick since joining the franchise in 2004. He filled a variety of roles during that time, including offensive assistant, assistant offensive line coach, linebackers coach and safeties coach, before establishing himself as one of the league’s most successful defensive coordinators from 2012-17.

The primary challenges facing Patricia, who is a head coach for the first time at any level, are to rebuild a running game that is mocked for its inefficacy alongside star quarterback Matthew Stafford and to solidify a defense that has several solid pieces — namely pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah, cornerback Darius Slay and safety Glover Quin — but a rather underwhelming track record.

There is plenty of work to be done in what is suddenly one of the stronger divisions in football.

Here are three things to know about the Lions:

Rebuilding effort

Surely you’ve heard the statistic about the Lions going 68 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher. It’s as staggering as it is unfathomable. As mentioned above, finding a way to reignite the running game is a huge priority for Patricia, and general manager Bob Quinn has brought in some new faces to try and make that happen. The Lions signed free-agent running back LeGarrette Blount to a one-year, $2 million contract in March to add some much-needed force to their running attack. Then they selected former Auburn tailback Kerryon Johnson with the No. 43 overall pick in this year’s draft. Together with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, two Lions’ mainstays of late, there is finally a bit of juice in the backfield with Stafford.

Protecting their man

As quarterbacks around the league play into their late 30s and early 40s, the offensive linemen around them take on even greater importance. No player — regardless of genetic predisposition — is going to play that long if opposing defenses are teeing off with big hits every week. So while there was certainly a bit of surprise when Quinn used this year’s first-round pick on Frank Ragnow, a center from Arkansas, there was a measure of practicality to the selection. Stafford has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league when healthy, but there was a stretch of time when he took far too many big hits. Ragnow has enough positional versatility to play center or guard at the next level and represents just the latest reinforcement along the Lions’ front line, joining the likes of former Packers guard T.J. Lang (free-agent signing) and tackles Taylor Decker (first-round pick in 2016) and Rick Wagner (free-agent signing).

Coaching lifer

Patricia smartly retained Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator when building his coaching staff earlier this year, but it was the choice for defensive coordinator that turned a few heads: Paul Pasqualoni. At 68 years old, Pasqualoni has been in coaching since 1972 when he was an assistant at Cheshire High School in Connecticut. His journey since then included stops at Southern Connecticut State, Western Connecticut State, Syracuse (head coach), the Dallas Cowboys, the Miami Dolphins, the Dallas Cowboys again, Connecticut (head coach), the Chicago Bears, the Houston Texans, Boston College and now the Lions. This is Pasqualoni’s first coordinator job since he served as DC of the Dolphins in 2008-09. Patricia is certain to have a large hand in the defense given his pedigree, but Pasqualoni is the man who’ll be by his side every step of the way.

Packers schedule glimpse

Oct. 7 at Lions, noon, Fox

Week before: vs. Bills, Sept. 30.

Week after: vs. 49ers, Oct. 15.

On the horizon: Bye week.

Detroit Lions

Coach: Matt Patricia (0-0 overall, first season with Detroit).

2017 record: 9-7, second in NFC North.

Scoring offense: 25.6 points per game (7th in NFL).

Total offense: 337.8 yards per game (13th).

Scoring defense: 23.5 points per game (21st).

Total defense: 355.8 yards per game (27th).

Series: Packers lead, 98-70-7.

Last meeting: The Packers ended their regular season in Detroit for the second consecutive year in 2017 and had been eliminated from the playoffs by the time they arrived at Ford Field on New Year’s Eve. The game itself will be remembered for two things: It was the first — and only — game experience for quarterback Joe Callahan, who finally relieved Brett Hundley in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss; and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix put forth questionable effort that triggered widespread media criticism of a player who claims to be a leader of the defense. The final score was Detroit 35, Green Bay 11.

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