'I've got to do a better job': Paul Pasqualoni bears brunt of Lions' defensive struggles
Allen Park — If Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia survives beyond this season, there will be an expectation someone in the coaching staff loses their job. It would be tough to sell continuity to the fan base after the team was eliminated from postseason contention on Thanksgiving and will likely finish with fewer than five wins.
Given the offense has played above expectations, continuing to be competitive despite injuries to its starting and backup quarterback, as well as the starting running back, the spotlight burns brightly on a defense that ranks near the bottom of the league in many of the most notable categories, including points allowed.
That could spell trouble for defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.
"They've talked about my job all my life," Pasqualoni said. "If I was going to let that stuff bother me, I would have been out of this like 40 years ago."
A former elementary school teacher, the 70-year-old Pasqualoni has been coaching at the college or professional level for more than four decades. And like any coach, he's had his share of successes and failures.
His best run came during a 13-year stint as the head coach at Syracuse, where he won 64 percent of the time, including five nine-win seasons. But in Detroit, where he's led the implementation of Patricia's defense, things haven't gone quite as well.
After heading a unit that finished in the middle of the pack a year ago, and upgraded several pieces this offseason, expectations coming into 2019 were understandably high. But the defense has taken a significant step backward and been the key culprit on a team that's coughed up five fourth-quarter leads.
"I always put a lot of it on myself," Pasqualoni said. "I see my job as helping the players have success. When the team and players don't have success, I think if you're in this for the right reasons, and you're in it to teach and you're in it to help people, I think it bothers you. I think that part bothers me. I take responsibility. I've got to do a better job."
So what's gone wrong? Why have the Lions fallen short of the expectations? Pasqualoni didn't hesitate to point at some of the team's injury woes.
"Well, we've had a lot of injuries," he said. "We didn't have Rashaan Melvin last week, so now we're playing a game with another corner. We've had guys up front, which kind of hurts the continuity of things. We had guys earlier in the year that weren't able to practice as much in preseason camp."
He's not incorrect, although Melvin isn't the ideal example. The Lions have arguably gotten better play out of rookie Amani Oruwariye as an injury replacement during the past two weeks.
Up front has been the bigger issue, with a defensive line that was supposed to be one of the roster's strengths. Trey Flowers and Damon Harrison got off to sluggish starts due to missing most of the offseason, while Mike Daniels and Da'Shawn Hand have both missed a significant number of games and been minimally effective due to injuries.
But any coach, including Pasqualoni, will tell you injuries can't be an excuse. Every team has them and good teams find ways to overcome. The Lions simply haven't.
Sure, they've made some strides stopping the run recently, but they continue to get torched in the passing game almost weekly. In five of the past six, the opposing quarterback has posted a passer rating above116.0, which is better than Kirk Cousins, the NFL's leader in the category.
Included in that string of disappointing outings was two against Chicago's Mitchell Trubisky, one of the league's worst starters this season.
"It's different issues, different weeks," Pasqualoni said about the struggles.
In an ideal world, Pasqualoni has benchmarks for success. He'd like to see the defense limit opposing ground games under 100 yards each week, or between 3.3-3.5 yards per carry. And in terms of points, the most important stat of them all, 17 per game would be good for 10 or 11 wins, according to the coordinator.
Heck, the Lions would already have nine wins if their opponent had scored 17 each week. But his group is falling well short of all those marks and the team has held just one opponent to 17 or fewer, the Chargers in Week 2.
Not surprisingly, Pasqualoni has blinders on at this time of the year. He's not listening to any chatter about his job security, instead focusing on developing a game plan for the Minnesota Vikings, a team that scorched the Lions for a season-high 42 points when they met in October.
And stepping aside after the season is out of the question. Retirement is not in the cards with two kids in college and a third graduating high school this year.
"I'm going to be coaching — I hope I'm coaching — for a long time," he said. "I have no intention of not working."
And despite all the struggles, Pasqualoni still believes Patricia's scheme works and will work in Detroit, if given time.
"He's got a plan, he's got a blueprint and I think it's a good one, a real good one," Pasqualoni said. "He'll keep grinding through it and it will work."
The question becomes: Will Pasqualoni be here to see it through?
Where the Lions rank defensively in the NFL:
Total defense: 29th (398.1 YPG)
Pass defense: 30th (280.1 YPG)
Rush defense: 23rd (118.0 YPG)
Scoring defense: 25th (26.3 PPG)