Balley: Undlin at DC makes sense for the Lions

Trent Balley, Detroit Sports Columnist

The 2019 Detroit Lions season was a complete failure, but I’m not going to dig it all up again. 

It happened, it was horrible, but it’s over. Owner Martha Ford made the decision to stick with coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn after the 3-12-1 campaign. The change? A whole lot of others.

Several assistant coaches were either fired or they “stepped down” at the tail end of the calendar year. Among them, defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, after two seasons with Detroit. His replacement, announced this morning, is Cory Undlin. For logical purposes, it seems like a good hire.

It may not be a glamorous, big name hire, but neither was Darrell Bevell. A year ago I wrote a column explaining why Bevell was the right decision for the Lions at offensive coordinator. It aged fairly well, as Bevell’s offense in 2019 was worlds above Jim Bob Cooter’s anemic and unchanging playbook of seasons prior.

Bevell’s offense finished top 10 in passing yards and passing touchdowns, against all odds as franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford missed the final eight games of the season with a back injury. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay led the entire NFL in receiving touchdowns with 11, while his counterpart Marvin Jones tied for fourth in the league with nine. 

The running game needs work, but starter Kerryon Johnson went on IR in the middle of the season, forcing the Lions to start guys like Tra Carson, Wes Hills and Bo Scarbrough at running back. It may not be as bad as some think. 

This isn’t to mention other injuries to Jones, T.J. Hockenson, Danny Amendola and others. The Lions also held a lead in more fourth quarters than not. The bottom line is, the offense wasn’t the problem. It was the defense, hence Pasqualoni’s exit.

Enter Undlin.

To quickly brief you on his history, Undlin began his career alongside Patricia as a defensive assistant to Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots in 2004. That team would win the Super Bowl.

Over the next 15 years, he proceeded to hold assistant coaching positions, almost entirely on defense, with the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos and most notably the Philadelphia Eagles. With Philly, Undlin was the defensive backs coach from 2015 until this morning. Yes, that means he coached the Super Bowl-winning secondary for the Eagles in 2017.

He’ll be tasked with correcting a defense that allowed the second most yards on the season in the NFL, as well as over 26 points per game.

So, having never held a defensive coordinator position, was Undlin a justifiable hire? I absolutely believe so. He has a pair of Super Bowl rings. He has ties to Patricia. And it appears that his responsibilities won’t be too heavy, as it’s been reported by multiple sources that Patricia is expected to call plays on defense.

Matt Patricia calls defensive plays for the Lions vs. the Minnesota Vikings in 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

Likewise, it would make sense that Undlin’s primary responsibility will be the defensive backs, which should be his forte. Hypothetically, he’ll be a glorified defensive backs coach. Patricia, on the other hand, will continue to build his front seven in his image after two years of mediocre or worse results.

If we take a look at what the Lions have in the secondary, it isn’t bad at all on paper. Darius Slay has been a Pro Bowl cornerback for the last three seasons. Justin Coleman also became a fan-favorite and had a solid season opposite Slay. Safeties Tracy Walker and Will Harris are young and blossoming. There’s potential. The problem is, Lions fans don’t want potential… they want results, and that will be Undlin’s tallest task.

The out-of-the-blue hire is not surprising considering that the Lions kept much of this interview process quiet. But considering what the Lions are trying to do in keeping Patricia in charge, it makes sense.

This looks like Patricia’s last chance to right the ship. When the Lions fired Jim Caldwell after three winning seasons and two playoff appearances, they were expecting the next coach to raise the bar. Patricia hasn’t done that. In fact, the Lions’ season win totals have decreased every season since 2017. Fans are growing impatient, to say the absolute least.

Only time will tell if it’s the right hire. If the Lions want to turn the tables and finally win their first NFC North title, the defense has to be much better. After all, that’s supposed to be Patricia’s MO, and now that he’s had his second crack at choosing a defensive coordinator, there’s reason to believe things may turn around for the Lions in 2020.

Trent Balley is a beat reporter for Michigan State men’s basketball, as well as Detroit sports columnist for Impact 89FM. Follow him on Twitter at @tbal91.