How Can the Lions Improve the Worst Defense in the NFL?

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The Lions defense is the worst in the NFL. In the categories of third down percentage and red zone percentage they rank dead last, and they are third last in takeaways. They just got ripped a new orifice by the mighty Case Keenum, who looked more like Dan Marino. Keenum could be found standing untouched in the pocket and delivering twenty straight completions on Sunday. In addition, the defense let 2016 Kenny Britt look like 2010-2011 Kenny Britt, which is to say very good for those of you who do not recall. What can the Lions do to fix their rotting and battered ship now that they’ve realized they’re taking on water? Ziggy Ansah will return to form over the next few weeks, which will help slightly. The Lions have two pass rushers in the midst of career years from the defensive end spot as it is though. They did not lose that production while he was gone. The problem is not the Lions’ defensive line. The problem is that quarterbacks are delivering the ball to an easily identifiable open receiver on a consistent basis. This is happening because of the way the Lions are playing in their back seven. No pass rusher gets pressure on the quarterback consistently if the quarterback’s first read is open. That has been happening far too often against the Lions.

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The Problem

The Lions have been playing with a depleted roster. They have been forced to start players that no sane person believes should be out there. The holes in this defense are obvious and numerous. Thurston Armbrister should not be starting in the NFL. Kyle Van Noy should be spelled in coverage, and likely be playing in a different scheme entirely. Tahir Whitehead has problems in coverage, as do Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson. Quandre Diggs does well against teams’ third and even most second receivers. However if the other team gets a legitimate number one receiver in coverage with Diggs, it is a completion for a first down. Teryl Austin knows this, and has been playing to mask these deficiencies as much as possible. The Lions have been utilizing a “bend but don’t break” philosophy. They have been playing soft zones in key situations, trying not to give up big plays. They’re limiting how much they ask their less-than-perfect players to do, which sounds like a great idea on the surface. That’s like walking the 40-yard dash at the scouting Combine because you can be certain you are not going to get injured and damage your draft status. You still damage your draft status, just in a completely different way. The Lions’ defense is still giving up the same amount of yardage and points, just in a different way.

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The Conundrum

In zone coverage out of a nickel defense, the Lions have one great player in Glover Quinn. They have one average player in Darius Slay. Detroit has two below average players in Nevin Lawson, and Quandre Diggs.  They have three bad players in Whitehead, the other linebacker, and the strong safety. Which player is in at these spots does not matter as none of them are significantly better than the others.

In tighter man-based coverage schemes, the Lions have two great players in Slay and Quinn. They have two average players in Lawson and Diggs. They have one below average player in Whitehead. Finally they have two bad players in the other linebacker and the strong safety. The Lions have fewer obvious weak points in man coverage, but the result of those weak points failing would be greater. In man coverage there tends to be fewer players behind any given defender. The Lions have chosen the “safe” option by playing a lot of zone coverage to limit big plays.

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The Issue with Playing it Safe

The problem with soft zone defense is that it allows the receiver to be open more quickly due to the lack of disruption in the receiver’s route. By soft zone defense I am referring to a zone defense where defenders are giving the receivers a big “cushion,” playing well off the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. Short passes, and crossing routes are almost always open against soft zone coverage if the receiver and quarterback are on the same page. Defenders are hesitant to come forward at the snap of the ball because that would risk them being beaten deep. The result is that quick routes and crossing routes are easy to complete. The quarterback knows his most likely target with the ball before the snap almost every time he goes under center and gets him the ball quickly because the Lions have been telegraphing their coverages. The Lions’ defenders have been doing a good job of wrapping the other team’s players up quickly for the tackle, but the damage is already done by the completion. Detroit has not allowed many big plays, but have instead suffered the slow death of a thousand cuts. The Lions’ pass rushers have had the herculean task of trying to get to a quarterback that has a receiver open the moment he hits his drop point. It is not surprising that they have for the most part failed. The Lions are actually only one sack outside the top ten, because when the quarterback has to hold on to the ball the line is getting to him. The problem is that the coverage has just not been good enough to force quarterbacks to hold on to the ball very often. The reason for that is that the Lions are putting even their best players in the secondary outside their skill sets, and letting teams dictate the match ups.

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The Answer

It is a simple thing to fix the Lions defense: change it. The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result. The Lions should have put Darius Slay in press man coverage on Kenny Britt for the entire game Sunday. They should have put Nevin Lawson on Tavon Austin, and given him help over the top in the form of Glover Quinn. Brian Quick is not a good enough receiver that Quandre Diggs shouldn’t be able to handle the responsibility. Even if he is, there is only so much damage to be done by Brian Quick. The Lions should have stacked the box against the run from the beginning of the game. They should have limited Todd Gurley’s ability to dictate how the game was going to start rather than allowing him to set the tone and adjusting in the second half. They did none of these things and the result was Case Keenum’s 27/32 for 321 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The result was giving up 28 points to a team that had been averaging just over 16.

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The Real Problem with the Defense

What Teryl Austin is doing has not been working, and certainly will not work Sunday against Washington. If the Lions head out there again, playing soft zone coverage, he should be fired. If the Lions are giving up an astronomically bad third down conversion percentage he should be fired.  He should be fired if Lions are allowing touchdowns on more than half of opposition red zone trips. He should be fired while the team still has a chance to salvage the season if he refuses to see that his solution is not working. Austin may not be the problem; but he is not finding the solution. The Lions’ defensive scheme is a variation of the one that the Ravens have used for many years. There are a number of former Ravens’ defensive coaches out there who would likely be qualified to come in and run it for the rest of the year. Mike Nolan comes to mind immediately. Joe Lombardi did not get a free pass for his poor effort last season. Despite injuries to his starting tight ends, running back, right tackle, with garbage to replace them the offensive coordinator was fired. He did not get a free pass because he was forced to start a woefully unprepared rookie left guard, and fullback who did a terrible job of blocking in the first half of last season.  There is no reason that Teryl Austin should get a pass this season. That is how the NFL works; the job gets done or heads roll. Well, that’s how the NFL is supposed to work.

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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He is also known as /u/a5hcrack on reddit, and can be found on twitter @a5hcrack