Detroit’s 2016 Defensive Turnovers About Quality, Not Quantity

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A film Review Of The Turnovers Forced By The Detroit Lions’ Defense In 2016.

Turnovers Came When The Lions Needed Them Most

In 2016 the Detroit Lions managed 14 turnovers with 10 of them coming from interceptions and ended up recovering four of their nine forced fumbles. The Lions were in the bottom third of the league in both categories, showcasing their lack of turnovers during their 2016 campaign.

However, these turnovers often came when Detroit needed them most. Nearly one third of the Lions’ total turnovers (four) came in the form of game winners, helping them defeat the Eagles, Rams, Jaguars, and Vikings. While many Lions’ fans have pointed to Stafford for the reason behind the 2016 comeback record, the defense deserves some credit too for coming up with turnovers in clutch situations this past year.

Darius Slay lived up to his nickname as “Big Play Slay” in 2016. While Slay only registered two interceptions, both were game winners. One came from an under-thrown ball by Carson Wentz against the Eagles when Slay had inside positioning. The other was a great read by Slay to break off his own man in man coverage, and jump the pass intended for the Vikings Adam Thielen. Slay also had a clutch forced fumble late in the 4th quarter against the Eagles to set Stafford and Co. up for the go ahead touchdown to defeat the Eagles.

Lions Bend-Don’t-Break Defense Was A Setup

While there were some that criticized defensive coordinator Teryl Austin for running a high amount of soft cover two zone this past season, it did set the Lions up to generate turnovers when they went away from it. Of the 14 turnovers in 2016, 10 of them occurred when the defense was in cover three or cover one man. However, the Lions often did not show this coverage. They would disguise their coverage as more cover two zone and the disguise worked well.

When these turnovers occur, it is because the opposing quarterback had grown accustomed to the soft cover two zone and anticipate the play again when the same formation was shown. But when they snap the ball and Lions’ defenders are maned up outside or shift to cover three, opposing offenses were often confused and ended up throwing into coverage or opened themselves up for a big hit causing a fumble.

Detroit Needs More Turnovers In 2017

While the turnovers came in clutch moments last year, the Lions defense needs to generate more turnovers as a unit moving forward. Being in the bottom third in this category really hurt the team last year.  The Lions only registered turnovers in half of their game and did not force a turnover in any of their final four games. During those same four weeks, the Lions lost the division lead to the Green Bay Packers.

Luckily the offense was really good at taking care of the ball themselves, otherwise it could have been a much worse season for the Lions, as the tale of their season was the turnover battle.

Often you hear that the turnover differential is one of the biggest indicators of success each year and the Lions 2016 season embodied this belief. The Lions finished the season with a 6-1 record when they won the turnover battle and 2-5 when they did not. This further speaks to how important each turnover was for the Lions. Almost every turnover played an intricate part in their nine wins while a lack of turnovers produced were equally as important in their seven losses.

For the 2017 season, the Lions seem to be in a much better position to win the turnover battle. General Manager Bob Quinn targeted pass blocking offensive lineman in free agency that could provide quarterback Matthew Stafford with more time to survey they field and find an open target. This should help an already careful unit maintain possession of the ball even more in 2017.

But where the biggest impact will likely come from is the defensive side of the ball. The Lions drafted Flordia linebacker Jarrad Davis to cover the middle of the field much better than Tahir Whitehead, who struggled immensely in coverage last year. Quinn was not satisfied with just an improvement at the linebacker position however. Quinn recognized this need for more turnovers and drafted the talented and controversial cornerback Teez Tabor.

While there is debate over his long speed, no one questions Tabor’s ability to find the ball. He had a great career at Florida intercepting the ball eight times and returning three of them for touchdowns. His coverage instincts, reaction time, and fluid hips allow him to break very quickly on balls in underneath coverage. If the Lions are able to limit Tabor getting beat over the top it would allow him to focus on short to medium coverage where is able to take advantage of his skills to generate turnovers.

While the Lions were clutch with their limited turnover production in 2016, they need to improve in this category if they want to compete this upcoming season. With the additions brought in through free agency and the draft, the Lions should be set up to do just that.

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