Defense dominating Detroit’s turnaround

Detroit’s calling card is usually its explosive offense, but this year its defense is dominating. The Lions now have a strong back seven to complement a formidable four front.

The Detroit Lions have been behind the looking glass in 2014. The organization has attempted to build an offensive juggernaut, trying to take a page from the offensive-intensive teams by assembling a dream team through the draft and free agency – drafting Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Eric Ebron with premium picks and using free agency to acquire Reggie Bush and Golden Tate. The hope was to find success by outscoring opponents.

The Lions have accomplished that, but not the way it was planned. Detroit has a middle-of-the-road offense (currently ranked 16th in the NFL), but has the No. 2 defense, including being No. 1 against the run.

Detroit has struggled to consistently score points, putting up 24 or fewer points in 10 games and 20 or less in eight. But the Lions have allowed 24 or fewer points in every game but one (at New England) and have allowed 17 or fewer points in nine games – a formula for winning consistently in the NFL.

The Lions are looking to bury their history of fading down the stretch, which has happened often – including last year when they had the NFC North title firmly in the grasp only to collapse down the stretch.

In Stafford, the Lions have a bona fide franchise quarterback who has a cannon for an arm and isn’t afraid to take deep shots. His numbers have been skewed in recent years because the Lions had to get into high-scoring shootouts to win game, often resulting in Stafford throwing between 600 and 700 passes a year – far too many in NFL terms. This season, his passing numbers have been down, but it has been by design. He has only one game with more than two TD passes and has just four 300-yard passing games. He holds the ball too long at times, which has led to 39 sacks this season, but he is a solid quarterback who runs the offense efficiently and no longer throws the stupid interceptions by forcing the ball that plagued him early in his career.

Although the Lions don’t have a strong running game, they run the ball enough to get the job done, despite averaging just 3.4 yards a carry. Joique Bell was expected to be part of a tandem with Reggie Bush, but that hasn’t panned out since Bush has missed five games due to injury at three different times in the season and has just 61 carries through 13 games. Bell has taken over the top spot, rushing 182 times for 664 yards and six touchdowns. Bush is capable of making the splash plays, although he has just three plays of 20 or more yards all season, but the Lions will likely be showing the Vikings a much steadier dose of Bell when they run the ball.

The Detroit run game is used primarily to set up the pass and the Lions have plenty of weapons at their disposal. Johnson is widely viewed as the top wide receiver in the NFL and, after missing all or part of five games due to an ankle injury, he’s back and his numbers are approaching Megatron status once again. In their last two games – both home wins by scores of 34-17 – Johnson has caught 19 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns. When Johnson was slowed by his injury, it allowed former Seahawk Golden Tate to make his statement that he is the best complementary receiver the Lions have ever had opposite Megatron.

Tate has caught 84 passes for 1,186 yards and three TDs, quickly becoming a favorite target of Stafford. He has five or more receptions in 10 games and has topped 90 receiving yards seven times. Ebron has been slow out of the gate, missing three games due to injury and catching just 22 passes for 199 yards and one TD in the 10 games he has played. He’s still learning the pro game, but as the 10th pick in May’s draft, big things are expected from him as he surpasses veteran Brandon Pettigrew.

While the offense has weapons and solid depth, it is the defense that has been the calling card of the Lions this season. Detroit has invested heavily in building up its defensive front, but it was the back seven of the defense that had historically been the problem for the team. That has all changed this season, but the pressure still comes from a defensive line that doesn’t require blitz help to put pressure on the quarterback in the passing game.

The Lions arguably have the best and deepest defensive line in the NFL, with Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones at the defensive ends, and Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley at the tackles, with DEs George Johnson and Darryl Tapp and DTs C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen rotating in and out. The sack numbers they have produced have been impressive because of how they’ve been spread out.

Ansah leads the team with 7.5 sacks, but Suh has 5.5, Johnson has five, Jones has three, Mosley has 2.5 and Fluellen has two. They find ways to confuse offensive linemen and consistently bring the pressure that collapses the pocket. They have had that kind of production for the last three years, but the biggest difference is the improvement of the back end of the defense, which, for years, has been a liability.

The team suffered a blow with the season-ending injury to middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, but the team has held up with outside linebackers DeAndre Levy and Ashley Palmer and replacement MLB Tahir Whitehead (who is questionable with a shoulder injury). It isn’t a group that has Pro Bowl talent, but they’re all sound in their technique and wrap-up tacklers who rarely surrender big plays. While their play has been steadily improving, it pales to the strides made by the secondary, which has been the Achilles heel of the Detroit defense for years.

The Lions have historically brought in defensive backs from other teams and they still do, but this time they have the best starting foursome they’ve had in years with Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay at the corners and James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin at safety. The team has 17 interceptions this year and one of the primary reasons is the play of Ihedigbo and Quin. They have combined for nine interceptions and have been the ball hawks that have been missing in Detroit for years. If the Vikings are put into situations where they have to pass, not only will the pass rush be pinning its ears back, but the secondary will be looking to make the big plays that win games.

For years, Detroit has been kind of a running joke around the NFL. They get off to strong starts often but typically fade down the stretch. Coming off two straight wins and still very much in the race to win the NFC North, it would appear the Lions have buried the ghosts of the past and are starting a new era in which they can win games both with a strong offense and a strong defense. If the Vikings are going to go into Ford Field and become just the second team to beat Detroit on its home turf, they will need to play an error-free game because these aren’t the Lions many are familiar with. These are the Lions that are finding ways to win, not lose.

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