The Detroit Lions' defense ranked last in the NFL last season. Last in average yards allowed. Last in average points allowed.
The Lions allowed 56 points at Philadelphia, the most points they had allowed since 1968. They allowed 51 points at San Diego, giving up 50 points twice in a season for the first time in their history.
But they expect to be much better this season. They have nowhere to go but up, and they have made significant changes in their team approach and personnel.
The Lions' emphasis on running the ball this season isn't just about balance for balance's sake or opening up the field for wide receivers Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. It's about controlling the ball and the clock. Against the Bengals on Sunday, they ran the ball 31 times for 112 yards, and more than that in the team's exhibition opener against New York.
On a small scale, at least, it has worked: the team has won time of possession in each contest.
Mike Martz knew the Lions' weakness on defense last season, but he didn't protect it. He helped expose it. He threw the ball anyway. That was a big reason he was fired.
The Lions will be committed to running the ball this season, even if they are not a juggernaut. A run for no gain still keeps the clock moving.
The defense was on the field far too much last season, and coach Rod Marinelli illustrated that for his players recently.
"He did a chart, how many plays we were out there," defensive end Dewayne White said. "We were out there playing 18 games in a 16-game schedule."
It's the defense's job to get off the field, too, of course. The Lions forced a lot of turnovers last season, at least in the first half of the season, but struggled on third down.
They allowed opponents to complete 70.1 percent of their passes, by far the worst in the league. Their tackling was terrible at times.
Linebacker Buster Davis reaches the quarterback in
Sunday's 27-10 win over Cincinnati.
The Lions aggressively addressed their secondary in the off-season, adding Tampa Two-style veterans Brian Kelly, Dwight Smith and Kalvin Pearson, plus Leigh Bodden. They have better ball and cover skills now. They should be able to play more man and press coverage. Kelly came up with an interception while defending the Bengals' Chad Johnson, and the defensive line secured four sacks -- many of them because of great secondary work.
"Our secondary's really drastically improved," Marinelli said.
The front seven is still a big question mark, however. The linebackers need to make more plays. The line needs to get more consistent pressure on the quarterback. The Lions need young players like Shaun Cody, Ikaika Alama-Francis and Cliff Avril to develop and make an impact.
But there are some solid signs. Alama-Francis and Avril each registered a strong performance against Cincinnati starters, and the youth residing within the team's defensive line and linebacking core seems to be coming full-circle at the right time.
"I'm so excited about the defense the secondary, the linebackers, everybody knowing the defense better, knowing where to be," White said. "We just right now need to keep building chemistry and keep learning."
When Marinelli says the run fits are good, that means the system is working. And he said they were good after the exhibition opener against the New York Giants.
The Lions added players who know the system, and most of the others have had two years in the system now. It shows.
"So far they're playing the system, and when you play the system and you understand it, you really play fast," Marinelli said. "Everything's just about doing things exactly right. I think it's coming along."