(ALLEN PARK) - Pundits howled when Detroit Lions president Matt Millen inked
St. Louis Rams nickel back Dre' Bly to a five-year $24 million contract as a
free agent last year. "Detroit overpaid for Bly" critics snarled and some fans
even picked up on that theme, saying that they could have gone for a lesser
Flash-forward to three games into the season and it is clear that Bly is one of the few playmakers on the Lions defense. Bly leads the NFL with three interceptions and seven passes defended. While Bly excels the rest of the Detroit defense flounders. The Lions rank 31st (only the New York Giants are worse) in total defense, 31st against the pass and 28th against the run.
Detroit is continuing a trend that began with the overhaul of the 9-7 Lions team in 1999 that ranked 13th in total defense. In Marty Mornhinweg's final season, Detroit ranked 31st in total defense under current defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer. In 2000 under former Cardinals head coach Vince Tobin, the Lions ranked 26th in total defense.
From the looks of things, Detroit could use a few more high-profile free agent signing to fix what ails them. Instead, the team has chosen to try to fix the defense by drafting speedy young players through the draft, but so far, the results have not been what they expected. Detroit also has suffered a noticeable decline of some of their top defensive players like Luther Elliss (PUP list) and Robert Porcher. The team lost top performers like Stephen Boyd to premature retirement and Chris Claiborne to free agency.
Detroit has not had a top performing safety since losing Mark Carrier in free
agency in 2000.
Detroit took an injured defensive tackle from Texas, Shaun Rogers in the second round of the 2001 draft. The move paid early dividends as Rogers posted an incredible rookie season, totaling 81 tackles and 3.0 sacks. But "Big Baby" tailed off significantly in his sophomore season cutting his first year production in half with just 48 tackles and 2.5 sacks. There were trade talks involving the now third-year veteran.
Boss Bailey, the super fast, but not so sure tackling outside linebacker from Georgia came aboard in this year's 2003 draft and became an immediate starter. The Boss is struggling so far, but as a rookie has room to grow. Young defensive tackle Cory Redding shows promise and will likely replace aging veteran Kelvin Pritchett before too much longer.
2002 draft choice Kalimba Edwards hasn't gotten on the field much this season while recovering from a sports hernia.
Edwards led the team in sacks with 6.5 in his rookie year and appeared to have a promising future. He has no sacks to date this season. Third round pick Andre Goodman, was a starter at corner after the loss of 6th round pick Chris Cash for the season with a knee injury. Goodman suffered a separation of his surgically repaired right shoulder.
The injury is career threatening.
Sixth round pick Jason Glenn is a member of the New York Jets, after being released by Detroit. While only Barrett Green, a second round pick from West Virginia remains from last pre-Millen draft. Green is tied for 27th in the NFL in tackles with 21, which leads the team.
Detroit loaded up with free agents this off season in an attempt to fix what ails them, but instead of taking "A" list players, Detroit sat on the sidelines until most of the top producing players were gone and then snatched up retreads like linebacker Earl Holmes (third on team with 17 tackles), Wali Rainer (zero tackles) and Dan Wilkinson (five tackles, one sack). Much later Detroit added marginal players like corners Alex Molden and Otis Smith and snatched up Rod Babers, a rookie released by New York when he unexpectedly walked out of training camp.
After losing Carrier, Detroit went the stopgap route, signing former Buffalo Bill Kurt Schulz who was injured as often as he played. Another player, Lamar Campbell, an undrafted free agent Detroit heavily counted on never panned out. Detroit signed free agents Brian Walker and Corey Harris, an aging veteran from Buffalo. The results were mixed for both players. Still it is noteworthy that Harris is tied with Green for the team lead in tackles.
While it is clear Detroit has a talent problem, they have steadily been near the bottom under the direction of Schottenheimer. Prior to landing the job as Marty Mornhinweg's defensive coordinator, Schottenheimer had only worked in that position under his brother embattled San Diego Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer. While Detroit was bad under Vince Tobin, they have been even worse under Schottenheimer.
The Lions clearly are in denial regarding the continued dismal play of their defense. Detroit was supposed to be able to hang their hat on stopping the run, but the Green Bay Packers ran over and through the Lions en route to a victory at Lambeau Field.
If the Lions really want to make an upward move they ought to keep a keen eye on the situation in Chicago. Former Lion player and current Bear head coach Dick Jauron is on the hot seat. If there's one thing Jauron can do is run a defense. As Jacksonville's defensive coordinator in 1999, Jauron group ranked 5th in the NFL in total defense. Another top candidate is Miami Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt who also is on the hot seat and could be available if the Dolphins have another late season fold. As defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, the team led the league in total defense in 1992.
An infusion of young talent would also help. Detroit needs another corner to team with Bly and allow young talents Cash and Goodman to develop as backups. Detroit also needs a strong safety to replace the aging Harris and they need to decide if Walker is the answer at the other safety. Detroit turned up its nose at free agent playmaker Sammy Knight and didn't make a strong move to go after franchise safety Lawyer Milloy when he was released by New England.
In the line backing corps, Detroit really blundered by letting a 25 year old, No. 1 draft pick like Chris Claiborne walk away as a free agent. Earl Holmes doesn't appear to have much left in the tank and its decision time on free agent to be Barrett Green who hasn't lived up to promise at the weak side linebacker position.
Will Kalimba Edwards be able to adequately replace Robert Porcher who is at the end of the line? Is James Hall good enough to be an every down starter? Detroit has yet to get even one sack from its defensive ends this season.
There are a lot of questions in the Lions defensive corps and not many answers. But the bottom line is clear, Detroit isn't going anywhere until it builds a respectable defense. Ranking 31st out of 32 teams isn't going to cut it.