The Lions have improved on their number of turnovers foced but still give up several big scoring plays. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Allen Park —It’s a head-scratcher.
At times, the Lions defense has been stout and stingy.
■They were the best third-down defense the first few weeks, and still rank second through seven games.
■They are the fifth-best red-zone defense.
■They are ninth in takeaways, third in interceptions (10).
At other times, they don’t appear capable of stopping anybody.
■They rank 31st in total defense (397 yards).
■They rank 28th in pass defense (282).
■They rank 21st in scoring defense (23.9).
■They have allowed an incomprehensible five passes and four runs of 40 or more yards.
“It’s not frustrating at all,” middle linebacker and defensive captain Stephen Tulloch said. “We’ve got guys who compete. Sometimes, the opponent gets the best of them but the goal is to come back and keep playing ball. It’s the way the league goes. You win some and you lose some and you have to try to win more than you lose. That is our attitude; that’s how we approach it.”
Coach Jim Schwartz, who earned his coaching stripes as a defensive master, has to be befuddled. If the mistakes were centrally located — if it were a certain scheme or certain players — he could go in and fix it. But it’s not scheme. The same mistakes aren’t being repeated and they are being made by good players, proven players.
“You just have to keep on working,” he said. “I think if you look at our breakdowns, they have been in different areas. We’re like 31 other teams. We’re trying to work hard to correct our mistakes and we’re trying to accentuate the things we do well.
“We are trying to battle every week to correct mistakes and be able to be consistent. There is a reason why everybody is not consistent; it’s because opponents are tough and competition is high in this league.”
The big plays, obviously, have been crippling. They’ve also been mystifying. It’s been a point of emphasis since training camp. They worked on stopping Adrian Peterson on the inside trap play for weeks and he went 78 yards for a touchdown on his first carry.
Two weeks ago against the Browns, they knew to expect a reverse whenever Travis Benjamin was in the game. Benjamin took a reverse 45 yards on his first carry. The next time, he was stopped for a three-yard loss.
The same linebacker who missed his gap the first time made the tackle on the second — DeAndre Levy, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level this season.
Last week, the cornerbacks were instructed to be wary of the double move from Bengals receiver A.J. Green. Chris Houston, the team’s best corner, bit on the first one he saw and gave up an 82-yard touchdown.
“It’s really frustrating,” defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said last week. “They’re not out there trying to lose the game, but they get out of whack. One guy makes a mistake and it causes great pain for us to make the adjustments.”
The big plays have skewed the statistics and ruined game plans.
“Statistically, there are not a whole lot of things that we are trying to accomplish other than to win the game,” Schwartz said. “I think we can lose sight of that with all the concentration on statistics and all the groups out there that publish a lot of that stuff and fantasy football. We’re trying to win the game.
“There are some things that we think correlate well with that. If you want to win the game, you have to hold the score down. If you want to hold the score down, you have to be able to get off the field on third down and you can’t give up big plays. Red-zone stops, third-down stops, turnovers, they all stop drives. Those are the things that we try to concentrate on.”
The Lions have gotten their fair share of red-zone stops, third-down stops and turnovers. But they haven’t gotten enough consistent pressure from the defensive line — their 13 sacks rank 27th. And without that, a struggling secondary has been exposed.
“I think you have to give credit to the teams that we have gone against,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “They have had good game plans and they have gotten rid of the ball pretty quick. We, ourselves, haven’t been as sharp as we possibly could be. It’s not like we’re playing perfect football or defensive line play. That’s something we have to clean up.
“We have to address it and I believe that we address it every single week. We just have to make sure we can find a way to be consistent and not address one issue and have another one pop up.”
Cunningham said Friday he’s seen progress this week, both up front and in the secondary. He has been encouraged by rapid growth of rookie defensive end Devin Taylor and said he deserves to play a bigger role this week.
The statistic that matters most, he said, is the turnovers. In the three losses, the Lions have forced just one turnover.
“Turnovers are the key to the game and that’s what we need to do,” he said. “If you give up an 80-yard touchdown pass, you better come back and take the ball away. For whatever reason we’ve lost that edge and we need to regain it quick.”