Before the regular season started most couldn't have imagined it.
But the Detroit Lions (6-3) have a respectable defense. A defense that capitalizes on mistakes and, on some weeks, provides more excitement than the offense. The defense that was ridiculed by some just a few months ago is ninth in the league in points against per game (24) and first in the league in takeaways (28).
Now, the Lions' once-mocked defense appears to be the key component in the team's biggest game of the season, to date –- a matchup with the New York Giants (6-3). Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry understands the importance of his unit's role in this contest, as well as recognizes the challenges they will face.
"Our No. 1 job is to keep the offense from scoring…" said Barry. " ...we've got our work cut out for us obviously against the run, but they have a bunch of really good receivers and they have a great, Pro Bowl tight end (Jeremy Shockey).
"So it's going to be a big challenge for us this week, but we're on to it."
The Lions' two toughest matchups will be against the tight end and running back positions. When Detroit has had success against those positions this season, it has generally won; however, losing those battles has usually resulted in failure.
In the Lions' six victories this season they have allowed only two touchdowns to tight ends and an average of only 86.3 rushing yards. In their three loses they have allowed three touchdowns to tight ends and 122 rushing yards.
This week the Lions face a team that is talented at both those positions, starting at tight end with Shockey.
Said Barry: "With him, you've got to be careful because he's as good as some teams' second or third wide receiver. He's very good at what he does; he knows how to run routes; he knows how to catch the ball, but then he's also a really good tight end on the line of scrimmage that can block and do things. So they're a very well-balanced, good offense. We've got our work cut out for us."
Although they are facing one of the game's best tight ends, they do not plan to adjust their scheme too much.
" (Linebacker) Boss (Bailey) could cover him," said Barry. "Our nickel could cover him, (linebacker) Ernie (Sims) could cover him. We're going to (cover him) based on what our defense is. We're not going to have just one guy (cover him); we don't all of a sudden just break out the Jeremy Shockey defense."
Barry may not be too concerned with altering the defensive gameplan to stop the tight end; however, he seems to be focused on stopping the run, particularly running back Brandon Jacobs.
"Oh, it's big," Said Barry "Where I was last year, we played (Jacobs), and he's a huge man. You look at it on paper and you see 6'4", 265 pounds, but (when) he runs out of bounds a couple times and you look at him – holy cow. He's a great back, there's no doubt about it. With any great back, you've got to gang tackle him. It can't be just one guy responsible for him. It's got to be all 11 men. We've got to swarm to the ball this week. We've stressed that, we've talked about it. He poses a big challenge, not only because he's a big man but because he's a good back."
This may be the most critical time of the season for the Lions. A win makes next Thursday's Thanksgiving-day game against the Green Bay Packers a possible first-place bout. However, a loss makes that game an opportunity for the Packers to all but claim the division, while leaving the Lions to battle for a wild card berth – and it appears their main completion in that race would be with the Giants.
A win this week would give the Lions an inside track on the playoffs, a loss and they could find themselves on the outside looking in, which would be considered a large disappointment after a 6-2 start.
Now the Lions are in a situation where their best defense against a second-half letdown may be their defense –- and before the regular season started, most couldn't have imagined that.