With the understanding that the use of ‘great’ as a moniker is a mostly subjective process, let’s dive into the Detroit Lions defense.
It’s been a couple of decades since the Lions last trotted a top-10 ranked defense out on to the field. In fact, since the Lions finished sixth in total defense in 1993, the team has averaged a bottom-10 ranking since.
This year has ushered in change and a newly developing identity for the Lions – one of a dominant defense.
“Our defense is playing unbelievable right now,” said quarterback Matthew Stafford immediately after the Lions beat the New Orleans Saints 24-23. “To hold that offense to what they did today, turning the ball over in big moments for us, getting stops for us, whatever it is, they’ve been great all year.”
There’s that word again; ‘great’. If the Lions defense is showing signs of being great, what are those indicators? Look no further than arguably the game's most crucial play – a third-down interception by safety Glover Quin with less than three and a half minutes left.
The interception setup the game-winning score for the Lions, helping them complete a 13-point, fourth-quarter comeback.
This play was a true illustration of the elements that have made the Lions defense so effective. The game-changing turnover was a product of play-call, preparation, communication, adjustment and talent.
“It started with a great play call. (Defensive coordinator Tyrel Austin) made a perfect call, D-Line got great pressure. On the back end, me and (safety James Ihedigbo) switched up something that we had been doing all game and gave a different look,” explained Quin. “We knew on third down that Drew (Brees) likes to go to the sticks and he likes to throw in the middle of the field, somebody right in front of him, somebody right in his vision.
“Everything worked out perfectly, we got great rush from our D-Line, Drew was under duress, he stepped up and the D-Line was closing in on him. He tried to look me off a little bit, he was trying to hit the tight end or somebody coming right across the field. All the film study, all the preparation added up. We were able to make a big play.”
The Saints had successfully used the middle of the field against the Lions throughout the game. The defense adjusted by incorporating more man-to-man coverage, tighter zone coverage and pre-snap play disguise.
On the interception specifically, Quin and Ihedigbo used the freedom that their coaches empowers them with to switch roles. Quin, the team’s free safety, took the down-low assignment while Ihedigbo played up high. It was a cover-one look. Both safeties lined up in their usual spot before the snap, successfully avoiding tipping their hand to the Saints veteran signal caller.
“I was able to hang it a little high and make it look like what he was expecting and then I dropped down and he threw it right to me,” said Quin.
The other factor in the Lions stout defensive play has been the open forum approach of the entire group. Feedback is welcomed by the coaches and the players often influence the play calls and in-game adjustments.
“The coaches, they give the players room for dialogue,” said Quin. “Throughout the game we were telling (the coaches), ‘hey, let’s go more tight man coverage’... We were like, ‘hey coach, let us lock up and play these guys, let’s stop trying to be in a perfect call. Let’s just line up, go play and hit them in the mouth. They are either going to be better than us or we’re going to be better than them’.”
On this day – and most days this season – the Lions defense proved to be better than their opposition. That’s not to say that they were perfect. They gave up 408 yards and 23-points, both well off the standards they have set for themselves this season. However, perhaps the most encouraging sign was of their resilience and adjustment.
“Throughout the course of a season, we’re going to have these types of games, you’re going to have games like last week where you totally dominate and win the game and then you’re going to have games where they get a couple of plays on you,” said Quin. “The sign of a great defense is obviously making stops when you need them, making big plays when you need them and just fighting and always making it tough on them.”
Whether or not you want to call them great on this day, it’s undeniable that the Lions made key plays on defense, opening the door for victory. You can call them what you want, but today, you have to also call them winners.