There was plenty of fan hype when the Detroit Lions brought in their new coaching staff this past winter. The Joe Lombardi hire promised to bring a New Orleans style offense. The Jim Caldwell hire promised the efficiency of Peyton Manning out of Matthew Stafford. The Teryl Austin hire promised to bring a Baltimore tenacity to the Detroit Lions defense. We are only three games into the 2014 season and what we have seen so far shows that the defense found its stride before the offense did. Teryl Austin has looked like the best defensive coordinator of the year. Being the top ranked defense through three games is not the main point here though. Austin has done so with a secondary that everyone in the NFL (Detroit Lions brass alike) saw as a weakness. On top of that, they have lost two corners for the season, and their starting safety James Ihedigbo has still yet to play a game. Add to that the fact that they have faced Eli Manning, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers. If that is not impressive enough for you, lets take a look at the numbers a little more closely.
The Defensive Line
A defensive line is judged on two things. The first is how effective they are with the pass rush. The second is how well they defend the run. The Detroit Lions defensive line, which was always expected to be the strength of the team, has stepped it up this year. They are currently second in the NFL in rush yards per game with 63.7 as an average. They also have 8 sacks on the year (the leading defense in the NFL has 10). The quarterbacks are under constant pressure forcing them to make quicker decisions and limiting effective pass plays. A better look at their effectiveness against the run is to look at who they faced. In week one they held the Giants to 53 yards rushing. The Giants rushed for a combined 274 yards the next two weeks. The Panthers came in during week 2 with a 113 yard performance the previous week. They were held to 62 against Detroit. They did even worse the following week but suffered several injuries to their running backs against Detroit. Green Bay was averaging 80 yards per game rushing. They got 76 against Detroit.
The Pass Defense
As mentioned earlier, the pass defense was supposed to be the weakness of the Lions. Last season, the Lions started Chris Houston, Rashean Mathis, Glover Quin, and Louis Delmas. The foursome were near worst in the NFL. The Detroit Lions modified that core group this season by releasing Houston and replacing him with Darius Slay, who looked terrible at times last season. They replaced Delmas with James Ihedigbo who has yet to play a game this season. The outcome of those changes? Isa Abdul-Quddus has played well in Ihedigbo’s absence. Slay has been outstanding. [Insert name here] has held his own in the nickel position. In all, the secondary has been a pleasant surprise. Statistically, here is their breakdown. They are third in the league in yards per game with 180.0. The quarterbacks they faced tell a bigger story here. Eli Manning passed for 163 yards against Detroit. He threw for a combined 511yards in the next two games. Cam Newton threw for more yards against Detroit than against the Steelers, his only other game of the season. Those yardage statistics though were much lower for Newton than most expected. The big story was the game against Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers threw for 349 against the Jets and 189 against the stingy Seahawks. Against the Lions, he threw for 162 yards. By the time Rodgers saw Detroit’s pass defense, they were starting a nickel corner that was not even on the team until that week after losing their starter and backup at that spot to season ending injuries.
The Defense As A Unit
As a whole, the defense is ranked first in the NFL in total yards per game allowed with 244.3. They are tied for second in points per game at 15.0. They have faced two teams that were in the playoffs last season and one team that has won two Super Bowls with their current coach and quarterback combination. These teams have issues as all NFL teams do, but to shut down Aaron Rodgers’ passing attack, contain Cam Newton in route to a 3rd quarter lead prior to collapsing in the second half, and to make Eli Manning look like Matt Schaub is definitely an accomplishment for this defense. They have tougher games ahead and I fully expect this pass defense to look like we expect it to by mid season. For now though, Teryl Austin needs to be given a ton of credit for coming in as a rookie defensive coordinator with big personnel weaknesses and still competing at this level. If he can build on this and get the defense rolling, this team can be a Super Bowl contender in a year or two when the offense gels.