When the Lions fired head coach Matt Patricia on Saturday, they might have taken away Mitch Trubisky’s last life raft.
For parts of three years, the Bears quarterback has torn apart a defense littered with subpar players and, even worse, a head 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 benefited more than Trubisky. In four games against the Lions since coach Matt Nagy’s arrival, Trubisky has gone 4-0, thrown 12 touchdowns and one interception and totaled a 124.39 passer rating. He has a 81.68 rating in all other career games.
Or, put more bluntly: 21 percent of his career touchdowns — and only 2.9 percent of his career interceptions — have come during those four Lions game.
No team played more man coverage in 2018, 2019 or 2020 than the Lions did, per Pro Football Focus. They’ve been remarkably bad at it, per PFF, 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.
Sunday’s game is shaping up to be a lose-lose proposition for Trubisky: if he dominates a spiraling Lions team, it will be what he’s always 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 week,” 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 Sunday. In his first start in nine weeks, He threw two interceptions against the Packers and was strip-sacked for a touchdown.
Trubisky gave no evidence that time on the bench did him any good. Now he’ll have to adjust — for once — against the Lions, who will be led by interim coach Darrell Bevell, their offensive coordinator.
Defensive coordinator Cory Undlin, who’s 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. 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, receiver Allen Robinson said.
“But at the end of the day 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 on Saturday, the Lions will be more dangerous — or at least desperate. Like Trubisky, coach Matt 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 losing streak.
Nagy was quick to point out Wednesday that the Bears-Lions series rarely produces a blowout. Fourteen of the last 17 matchups between the two teams have been decided by eight points or fewer.
“When you have a team like this — where 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.