After Seattle's Rashaad Penny rushed for 151 yards, Lions head coach Dan Campbell described a 'snowball effect' for his beleaguered defense. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Listening to head coach Dan Campbell describe the Lions’ defense this week from their Dearborn, Mich. headquarters called to mind a conversation with Danny Amendola several years into his five seasons with the Patriots.
Seated at a hotel conference table for a preseason television production meeting, ‘Playoff Danny’ described what differentiated his successful teams from struggling ones, like the Rams he left for New England. They were 18-46-1 during his four losing seasons in St. Louis.
Essentially, Amendola explained, the Patriots lived their ‘Do Your Job’ mantra. Players focused on carrying out only their responsibilities, fully trusting teammates to do the same. In contrast as sharp as winning vs. losing, Rams teammates tended to try to do more than specific roles and situations required.
Often, they believed, out of necessity.
Similarly, Campbell, described a “snowball effect” in Detroit, where the Lions have allowed a league-high 141 points for an average of 35.3 per game.
“We have a guy that doesn’t do the right thing, and then a guy who knows what to do is trying to overcompensate for it, and then that’s costing him a step behind his job,” Campbell said on Monday. “And then, this guy is trying to cover for him and then the next play they don’t trust that their teammate’s going to be there and it’s just – we’re in this vicious cycle right now.
“And so, we’ve got to pull things way, way back, and just get our confidence back and gain some trust among teammates…that comes with scheme, that comes with personnel, and we’re going to work through it.”
Coming off a 48-45 loss to Seattle, Detroit’s had a lot to work through. The Lions allowed 555 total yards, including 235 yards rushing, surrendered nine conversions on 12 third-down tries (75 percent) and were so forgiving that the Seahawks overcame lost penalty yardage on five scoring drives and never punted.
Beleaguered defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn responded Thursday to requests by Detroit reporters for updates on expected tweaks to scheme and personnel by singling out what should stay the same, as a foundation to build on.
“If you look at us in totality as far as the things that we fixed, the things that we tweaked, our interior is actually doing a pretty good job. It’s the perimeter that we’ve got to start to focus on now,” Glenn said. “I don’t think we’re going to go out and just be a whole other team because there are some things that we’re doing well.
“Just like I said, the interior as far as the run defense is doing pretty well. I think (linemen Alim McNeill) ‘Mac’ and (Isaiah) Buggs are doing a hell of a job.”
Complimenting interior linemen might sound crazy given the staggering numbers posted by Seattle’s Rashaad Penny. His 151 yards off 17 carries resulted in an 8.9 yard-per-rush average. But 77 of those yards are from Penny’s two scores, both exploiting the left edge of the Lions’ defense.
His first touchdown occurred on a 3rd-and-16 run into a blitz, with eight defenders on the line and nobody back as a high safety. His next was on another third down, from 41 yards away, as Penny followed a pulling left tackle and guard around the right end, nearly untouched en route to a game-clinching TD.
Though questionable for Sunday with a knee injury, Lions’ special teams ace Chris Board is very much on Bill Belichick’s mind entering Sunday. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
One of the chief culprits leading to Penny’s breakaway runs was Detroit’s situational linebacker Chris Board. Utilized on just eight of 70 defensive snaps, Board was completely cleared out by guard Gabe Jackson on Penny’s first score and took himself out of position on the second.
Not a good sequence for sure. Obvious even to these eyes, untrained as they are at evaluating every 22nd of all the moving pieces on a given football play.
What they don’t necessarily spot and what often fail to show up statistically are the varied ways Board excels at his specialty — the kicking game. None of which go unnoticed by the 48-year NFL coach with an eye for the most granular details.
On Wednesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick referred to Board as “the best special teams player we’ll play against all year.” Two days later, he expounded on his high praise.
“He’s a very hard guy to matchup against,” said Belichick, who’s coached all-time great special team aces Matthew Slater and Larry Izzo. “(Board’s) bigger than the players you referenced. The size matchup is a problem for the faster lighter guys. The speed matchup is a hard matchup for the bigger guys who don’t run as well as he does. He has a great combination of size and speed as well as experience, instincts, and techniques. It’s all of the above.”
At 6-2 and 239 pounds, Board runs with speed you’d expect from the son of two college track athletes. Originally signed by the Ravens, undrafted out of North Dakota State, he played at least 300 snaps on special teams in four of his first five NFL seasons. In March, Board left Baltimore as a free agent, agreeing to a one-year deal with Detroit.
“There are really no weaknesses in the player. You’ve got to figure out how to deal with him. He’s seen everything,” Belichick continued. “But it’s different than just dealing with a big-sized player or just a speed player, whatever he is.
“He’s a thumper. He’s a very physical player. He runs well. He’s very instinctive. So it doesn’t matter who’s on him, it’s a tough matchup. If you start double teaming then everybody else is singled. You might solve one problem but you might create multiple other ones, too. You have to figure out how to handle it. He creates a lot of problems and then it all kind of rolls downhill from there.”
Mutual admiration society
In 2015, the Eagles’ special teams unit coordinator by current Lions coach Dave Fipp keyed a win a Foxborough, where Chris Maragos blocked a punt returned for a touchdown. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Equal to the measure of Belichick’s respect for Board’s game is the way Board’s special teams coach Dave Fipp seems to feel about Belichick.
Fipp has been in the NFL since joining San Francisco’s staff in 2008. After three seasons with the 49ers and two more in Miami, he took over special teams for Philadelphia in 2013. Fipp stayed with the Eagles for seven more years and joined Campbell’s staff last season.
A few days ago, Fipp recounted experiences coaching against the Patriots, including in Super Bowl LII.
“They challenge you a lot. They do a bunch of different things,” he said. “In my time against them, they’ve hit a drop kick against us. They’ve run a reverse against us. They’ve brought the corner blitz off the edge in the Super Bowl against us. So, you really have to be prepared when you go into the game with these guys.”
Fipp then cast a line toward the captain of the Nantucket-docked ‘VIII Rings.’
“I would say on the flip side of it, it’s like one of my favorite things to do is play against them because it’s always a challenge,” said Fipp, whose coaching career began at Holy Cross. “And I think, as a professional, your goal is to earn the respect of other people, and I would say he would be up there at the top of my list in trying to earn his respect.
“I’m hoping one day he’ll take me fishing on his boat. We can talk special teams in the offseason. But that’s really – I say that like half-joking — but I’m actually like 99 percent serious about that.”
Fipp should be 100 percent sure that he’s earned Belichick’s respect. That drop kick he mentioned, it was thwarted by his Eagles late in 2015. In fact, it was one of several game-changing plays by their unit in a 35-28 victory in Foxborough.
The Patriots led, 14-0, in the second quarter when Nate Ebner blooped a rugby-style kick between lines of Eagles’ defenders. Seyi Ajirotutu recovered it and Philaedelphia immediately drove 59 yards to a score.
Little less than four minutes later, on the second-to-last snap of the first half, stalwart Chris Maragos blocked Ryan Allen’s punt and Najee Goode returned it 24 yards for a tying score. In the third quarter, the Eagles forged ahead, 21-14, before gaining a two-score lead on Darren Sproles’ 83-yard punt return.
Who wins the kicking phase will likely key who wins Sunday’s game, as the Patriots try to contain the league’s highest-scoring offense and exploit its highest-scoring (allowed) defense.
Detroit punter Jack Fox owns the NFL’s best net average (43.6) since 2020. Meanwhile, New England rookie Marcus Jones sparkled at Green Bay, where he returned two punts 29 and 20 yards. He also ran a kickoff back 37 yards.
Jake Bailey, who was an All-Pro first teamer while Fox was a second teamer in 2020, will try to out-kick his counterpart and recapture the form of three seasons ago. That year, as the league’s net leader, Bailey pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line on 56 percent of his punts. So far this season,he’s done it 37.5 percent of the time.
Waiting on him will be ex-Holy Cross receiver Kalif Raymond, who ranked fourth in punt returns (11.2 average) in 2021. Three weeks ago, he took a Washington kickoff back 52 yards.
In this matchup of two 1-3 teams, especially for the one expected to have a rookie, first-time starter at quarterback, every yard will count that much more. Including what’s hidden from the box score on special teams.
Mainly, it will come down to the oft-stated, three-word credo trademarked and worn around here on caps and t-shirts. Nothing more. And, damn sure, nothing less.
Lest the snowball start rolling, taking a season’s hopes with it.
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.