No Misprint: Lions’ Defense Has the Look of an Elite Unit

Suh Fairley

In the ever-changing world that is the NFL, there was one thing that could always be counted on.

The Detroit Lions would find a way to beat themselves by making key mistakes in end-of-game situations. The situation came to a head last year when the Lions got off to a 6-3 start and appeared to be the best team in the NFC North by a significant margin.

However, the Lions dropped six of their last seven games and didn’t even make the playoffs. Turnovers, penalties, and meltdowns were key ingredients in the recipe for that disaster.

That was the final straw for the Lions, who parted ways with erratic head coach Jim Schwartz after the season. They ultimately settled on Jim Caldwell to run the show, but that was cold comfort for long-suffering Lions fans. Caldwell had been the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts after Tony Dungy decided to retire, and the results were predictable.

Caldwell and the Colts had a brilliant season in 2009 and they made it to the Super Bowl, but they lost that game to New Orleans. A 10-6 season followed, but the Colts were defeated in their first playoff game.

Then, without Peyton Manning, the Colts fell all the way to 2-14 in 2011, and Jim Irsay cleaned house after the season and fired Caldwell.

Caldwell was clearly a good guy and a smart offensive coordinator when he had Manning in the lineup, but he did not give off the appearance of a bona fide head coach.

Nevertheless, the Lions decided to give him an opportunity to change their culture. Through the first seven game of the season, it appears that he has done just that.

However, it’s not just about the culture in Detroit right now. The Lions find themselves tied for first place in the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers, and it’s all about a defense that is exceeding expectations.

The Lions have the top-rated defense in the league in yards allowed. They are second against the run and seventh vs. the pass. More important than those statistical figures, the Lions have allowed fewer points (105) than any other NFC team and are second overall to the Baltimore Ravens (104).

They are doing it in two ways. They have a nasty, angry front line that includes defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and they are pulverizing opponents in the running games. They also have a no-name secondary that is coming up with big plays when the Lions need them most.

Take last week against the Saints. The Lions didn’t give New Orleans anything on the ground as the defensive line and linebacking crews laid some heavy licks on New Orleans running backs Khiry Robinson (26 yards), Mark Ingram (16 yards),  and Pierre Thomas (13 yards).

Then, with the Saints ahead by six points late in the fourth quarter, free safety Glover Quin came up with one of Drew Brees’ errant passes and that interception gave the Lions a chance for a comeback victory. Matthew Stafford, who struggled through much of the game without his star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, found Corey Fuller in the back of the endzone with 1:48 left to give the Lions a 24-23 lead.

The defense throttled Brees on his final attempt to regain the lead for the Saints, and Detroit hung on for the win.

These are the Detroit Lions? Where are the turnovers, penalties, and rampant stupidity? Is this really a team that is going to play to its impressive talent level?

Let’s get back to Suh and Fairley. These are both players who have been fined on a consistent basis for dirty play in the past. Suh has been called the dirtiest player in the league and Fairley was just a step behind.

But in 2014, both players are keeping quiet off the field and letting their play speak for them on the field. It is helping the Lions forge an identity that NFL fans have not seen for decades in Detroit.

Suh and Fairley don’t have overwhelming numbers. They have combined for 30 tackles and 4.0 sacks. However, when opponents see them in the middle of the defensive line, they know the interior running game is not an option.

DeAndre Levy is also playing a key role from the outside linebacker position with a team-high 68 tackles, four passes defensed, and an interception. Fellow OLB Tahir Whitehead has 40 stops, five passes defensed, and two interceptions.

Defensive ends George Johnson (4.0 sacks) and Ziggy Ansah (3.5 sacks) can both turn the corner and create havoc with their pass rush. Quin has a team-high three interceptions, while strong safety James Ihedigbo is a fearsome hitter with 24 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.

Lions’ first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin explained that he has a simple formula for playing effective defense. All a team needs is speed and physicality.

“With the amount of passing and the spread and trying to spread people out, you have to have linebackers that can run,” Austin said. “But you also have to have physical guys. You have to have guys that know how to play football. I think sometimes that gets overlooked.”

But not in Detroit, where the team is in the process of changing its image. Instead of featuring a nearly out-of-control, big-play offense and a non-existent defense, the Lions are playing hard-nosed defense-first football.

The formula appears to be working and the Lions have a real chance to make noise in the suddenly wide-open NFC.

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Steve Silverman
Steve Silverman is a longtime sportswriter who spent 10 years as senior editor at Pro Football Weekly and he has also written for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, MSNBC, and Silverman currently covers all sports – including the NFL – for CBS New York and Bleacher Report.