The Detroit Lions defense had a lot of question marks going into the season. They have answered all of them. Their stars were coming off down years in 2016. Their surprise role players from seasons past were gone, suspended, or injured.
They were expected to be the anchor that might drag the team down in a storm. They were the one phase of the team that the experts said could not be relied upon, the heel that undid mighty Achilles. Their response to those questions and comments can best be summed up in a quote from Cornelius Washington before week one. “I just try my best to stick it up y’all’s behinds” Washington said at a scrum.
Well Mr. Washington, consider my behind sore, and consider these questions answered.
Who Is Going To Rush The Passer?
Anthony Zettel is going to rush the passer. Zettel has recorded a sack in three out of four games, and put up two against the Vikings. Ezekiel Ansah is also going to rush the passer. In the only game that Zettel did not record a sack, Ansah recorded three. Haloti Ngata, Jeremiah Voloaga, and Jarrad Davis have each added a sack to the team’s total. Akeem Spence has not finished the job, but his intense pressure in the middle has led to more than one quarterback being unable to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside pass rushers.
The Lions defense is 14th in the NFL in sacks. That’s not spectacular, but it is a massive step up from 2016, and a better performance than anyone gave the defensive line credit for.
Who Is Going To Cover Tight Ends?
The Lions have given up 15, 108, 9, and 46 yards to tight ends in their first four games of the season. They gave up a few long plays and an ugly touchdown against the Giants. Other than that they have handled their business in exemplary fashion.
According to Pro Football Focus, the primary defender the Lions have deployed against tight ends is Tahir Whitehead, and the Lions are an above average play for tight ends. I guess 44 yards and a 25% chance of getting a touchdown constitutes a good fantasy play? Whitehead’s move to the outside has gone incredibly well. Miles Killebrew’s usage as the big nickel safety has also been a huge deterrent for any team looking at their tight end.
Jarrad Davis has had mixed results when pressed in to that duty, he has been far more successful limiting the run after catch from running backs. Players like Paul Worrilow, Nick Bellore, and Miles Killebrew have contributed as well. While Worrilow and Bellore are not coverage specialists, they have been present, and an effective deterrent. That is about as good as could ever be expected from those players. That the defense has not fallen apart in Davis’ absence is indicative of how great a job Bob Quinn did in rebuilding the linebacker corps.
Can This Secondary Get The Job Done?
I was tempted to just put a picture of the Joker laughing here. I was among those who asked the question of whether it was age or his poor supporting cast that caused Quin’s downturn. He has emphatically answered that question.
Glover Quin is having the best season of his career. He is on pace for 92 tackles, and has two interceptions. He even returned one of them for a touchdown. In addition to that he has had the Lions secondary locked in and ready to do their jobs all season. There is so little confusion in that defensive backfield, that a player not knowing exactly what his responsibility looks incredibly out of place. That was not the case in 2016.
Quandre Diggs in particular seemed to be out of position far too often last year. This year nothing could be further from the truth. His performance has been exemplary. Nevin Lawson has hardly shown up on the stat sheet, and that is perfect for a second corner. Lawson is not a ball hawk, but teams have not been picking on him.
Their need to move to second and third reads is a large part of the Lions incredible interception pace early in the season. Miles Killebrew has made Tavon Wilson’s future with the team questionable, and that has nothing to do with Wilson. Wilson has created multiple turnovers as well.
Is Teryl Austin A Great Defensive Coordinator?
The Lions defenses in the last few seasons have not fared well in relation to the rest of the league. It was natural for many to question how much of that was coaching. The answer is none. Not a single bit. The Lions defense in the last two seasons was gutted by injuries. It had started in a fairly average place, and went downhill before week one. The Lions stars were missing, or unreliable in the front seven. Austin used an incredible number of different blitz concepts to try and confuse offenses.
As the quality of competition rose on the other side of the ball, the severe deficiencies of the roster that composed the Lions defense were exposed. Good coaches and quarterbacks are going to eat Devin Taylor alive in coverage, but Taylor to his credit, is no worse an option than Thurston Armbrister. A well polished rock is still just a rock. When you have a list of catastrophically bad options in front of you, the one you choose doesn’t really matter.
This off-season Bob Quinn gave Austin a massive talent infusion. The defensive line group was revamped, as was the linebacker group. A drastic increase in the quality of the depth over the entire defense occurred. Proven NFL veterans, high draft picks looking for a new start, and even the Lions own rookies are clearly better fits for Austin’s scheme. Most importantly they are better athletes than their 2016 counterparts. The Lions’ return to defensive prominence is a combination of better talent, and a keen mind wielding that talent.
So Can They Keep It Up?
The answer to this question is a bit tricky. What “it” means must be defined. Will the Lions defense finish the year with 28 interceptions? To be frank that’s not likely. The 2016 NFL leader managed only 18. The opposition have done the Lions defense some favors, tipping balls up in the air in the middle of the field.
Being in the right place at the right time is a product of solid defensive play. Perfectly thrown balls do not result in interceptions as often as they have for the Lions, however. Whereas last year the Lions could not buy a break in this regard, they have been incredibly fortunate in 2017.
The rest of what the defense is doing is absolutely sustainable. There is no reason to believe that the Lions can not push the pocket in to quarterbacks faces. There is no reason to believe that the edge rushers are not going to be able to exploit bad left tackles, and they will see plenty of those.
The Lions defense is right in the middle of the NFL in their adjusted sack rate. Their defense matches up well with virtually any offense in the league when healthy. According to the football outsiders, the Lions are the fifth best defense in the NFL in relative performance of opposing offenses. The relative health of the roster really is the only factor that could derail them. If they stay healthy they are going to keep rolling.
The Detroit Lions defense had a lot of question marks going in to the season. They have answered all of them.