Turnover-Producing Defense Restoring Roar

The Lions are atop the NFC North, thanks in large part to a defense that is approaching last year's full-season total for takeaways. What's the difference on defense, and what's another reason why the Lions are 3-1 after going 4-12 last year? Coach Jim Schwartz explains.

The Detroit Lions went 10-6 in 2011 to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

The Lions in 2012 finished a woeful 4-12.

The difference between those two seasons, and the reason why the Lions are atop the NFC North at 3-1 entering Sunday's game at Lambeau Field, is obvious.

In 2011, Detroit finished fourth in the league with a turnover margin of plus-11. In 2012, it finished 30th at minus-16.

One-fourth of the way through this season, the Lions are tied for seventh at plus-4. That includes a second-ranked eight interceptions and a fifth-ranked 11 total takeaways.

"We've been a good defense at creating turnovers," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said in a conference call on Wednesday morning. "We've scored (two touchdowns) on defense. If you really look at the difference between us in 2011, when we were a playoff team, and us in 2012, when we were a 4-12 team, one of the biggest things was defensive takeaways. Defensively, our takeaways dropped in half (from 34 to 17). A lot of it has to do with just having players that are good around the football on the field."

Detroit's secondary is vastly improved, thanks to what essentially is a new duo at safety. Louis Delmas, a hard-hitting playmaker, missed eight games in 2012 – including both against Green Bay. After going without an interception in 2011 and 2012, he picked off a pair of passes last week against Chicago. Glover Quin was signed away from the Texans after starting 63 of a possible 68 games during his first four-plus seasons. He has two interception this season after picking off two in 2011 and 2012 combined.

While the secondary is better, the Lions' defensive line is as formidable as ever. Since 2010, that group is No. 1 in sacks (112.0), No. 8 in tackles for losses on running plays (69.5) and No. 2 with a combined 181.5 sacks and lost-yardage running plays. This season, rookie end Ziggy Ansah has 2.5 sacks, tackle Ndamukong Suh has two sacks and tackle Nick Fairley has 1.5 sacks as part of a team total of nine. Combine the pass rush with the improved play in the secondary, and Detroit is tied for the league lead with four more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes allowed (four).

"When he's on the field, there is a different dynamic," Schwartz said of Fairley, a first-round pick in 2011 who has played in 26 of a possible 35 games. "Ndamukong has played very good and consistently this whole year. He didn't have the stats the first three games but this last game (against Chicago), he really filled up the stat sheet and made an impact on the game – seven tackles and like four tackles for loss, hit the quarterback a bunch, two sacks, a forced fumble, a forced penalty. Those were all really big plays in the game. If the NFL had, like the NHL and NBA, if they had an assist category, Ndamukong probably would be leading the team in that. He's caused a couple interceptions due to pressures and created some plays for a lot of other guys. Some of the attention that he's got in pass rush has freed up some other guys to make sacks."

The other big difference from last season is on offense, where Reggie Bush has provided some balance to burn defenses accustomed to pooling their resources to prevent Matthew Stafford from throwing passes to Calvin Johnson. Last season, Stafford attempted an NFL-record 727 passes. This season, he's on pace to throw 624 passes but actually throw for more yards (5,048 projected vs. 4,967 in 2012).

At age 28, Bush remains one of the league's premier open-field threats. Even while missing the Week 3 game at Washington, Bush has rushed for 254 yards with a gaudy 5.3-yard average. Plus, he's caught 11 passes for 179 yards, which includes a 77-yard touchdown that pushes his average to 16.3 yards per reception. His 433 total yards from scrimmage rank ninth in the league.

"I think we're able to run the ball pretty effectively and also make some explosive runs," Schwartz said. "We were really lacking in plus-20 runs last year. Reggie Bush has given us a different dimension. Our offensive line, we've plugged in some guys -- we've got a lot of changes there over the previous years -- but they've blocked the run well. We've got some holes in the run game for our running backs and also protected the passer well. Those are all things that we can build off of. There's a lot of things that we continue to need to work on. We'll be tested for sure against Green Bay."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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