He saw guys come and go, some good, some bad, many nondescript. The Lions’ secondary fell apart and was picked apart, and cornerback Chris Houston often was the last man standing.
So when it was his chance to leave, Houston did what came naturally. He stuck it out and stayed.
The money helped, no doubt. The team’s commitment helped. Houston is an underrated cover guy who shies from nothing, risking a humbling every practice just trying to stick with Calvin Johnson. The secondary remains one of the Lions’ great unknowns, especially with the uncertain health of Louis Delmas, but at least it has real possibilities now.
Talented draft picks dot the field, including touted second-round rookie Darius Slay. There’s Bill Bentley, the third-rounder who would have started last season if not for a shoulder injury, and Jonte Green. But for the secondary to finally be decent, a lot will fall on two guys: The one who stayed and the one who came.
Houston stayed, signing a five-year, $25 million contract barely 36 hours after becoming an unrestricted free agent. The next day, Glover Quin arrived, signing a five-year, $23.5 million contract to leave the Texans.
A matter of trust
Both players trusted the Lions were determined to fix their defense. And in the early days of training camp, trust between the two veterans has grown, an element long missing in a patchwork secondary.
“I probably played with 20 different safeties since I’ve been here, five or six just last year,” said Houston, in his fourth season as a Lions starter. “There was no camaraderie, no communication. We’d get a safety off the street and he’d try to learn everything in the playbook in a week. We got a lot of bigger guys now, speed guys. When you got set pieces and they understand each other, you can play fast and gamble and make more plays, like in 2011.”
Houston doesn’t shy away from the truth, that injuries and off-field disruptions sparked the Lions’ 4-12 freefall. The defense was loaded with free agents perhaps eying the door, and it didn’t take long for cohesiveness to crumble.
Without trust (or experienced talent), cornerbacks and safeties can’t take chances, unsure if the other guy will cover for him. So what happened? More personnel turnover led to fewer forced turnovers. The Lions’ defense suffered a stunning drop in big plays, from 34 turnovers in the 2011 playoff season to 17 last year. Defensive touchdowns fell from seven to zero. Houston’s interceptions fell from five to two.
“It left a bad taste, but you can see the chemistry is so much better now,” Houston said. “A lot of guys were working for themselves last year. We got a lot of young guys now and they listen, no big egos or nothing. It’s going to be a much better year.”
Houston, 28, says he wants to make his first Pro Bowl, and the Lions felt strongly enough to make his signing a high priority. Just as important was landing Quin, 27, a four-year starter who led the Texans in tackles. If Delmas somehow manages his damaged left knee, he and Quin could form a fearsome tandem and — dare I say? — give the Lions their deepest secondary in years.
Slay and Bentley are grabbing attention while leaning heavily on the wisdom of Houston and Quin. Jim Schwartz said Houston has been “outstanding” in camp, and others have noticed the improved secondary. Receiver Nate Burleson notices every time he reaches for a pass from Matthew Stafford and it gets knocked away.
“There were times in years past where we would go weeks and they wouldn’t get their hands on a ball,” Burleson said. “We’re a lot taller, a lot more athletic and rangy.”
Quin was one of the prizes of free agency and is expected to ratchet that ball-hawking mentality. There’s no disputing his savvy, although you might question his sanity, leaving a perennial playoff team in Houston for the Lions and their own hungry (Chris) Houston.
“You want to go somewhere you’re wanted and needed,” Quin said. “So why not go where two years ago they made the playoffs, and last year they lost seven or eight games by (seven) points or less. A lot of that could be, hey, if you make one or two plays in the secondary, you win those eight games, so instead of going 4-12, you go 12-4.”
Houston has similar thoughts, and anything seems possible when the NFL calendar flips and rosters change. The Lions chewed through safeties and cornerbacks the past few seasons but there was Houston, game after game, hanging in.
He said he returned because he loves the coaching staff and his role, and he appreciates the help he’s finally getting.
“(Quin) is a great leader back there,” Houston said. “He’s very smart, he learned the defense overnight, and I feel much more comfortable with him. Obviously, I have goals. I want to be an anchor in the secondary and one of the best corners in the league. I see other guys do it all the time and their team wins, and that’s what I want.”
Lofty goals for a Lions cornerback. If the secondary develops as hoped, Houston might not even be the lone man standing at the end.