Are the Lions for real? Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers look at the Lions as they roll into Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field. Detroit News
Allen Park — After consecutive years near the bottom of the league in takeaways, the Lions suddenly find themselves tied for the NFL lead through four games this season.
“It’s a party at the ball,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said.
It’s a party all right, and every Lions defender who hasn’t been invited is on the waiting list, eager to get in.
“We’re hungry, baby,” Whitehead said. “Everybody wants a piece of the pie. They’re like, 'I’m next. I’m next in line. It’s my turn.’ You definitely get guys pushing each other, challenging each other to get to that ball.”
Whitehead is enjoying the festivities as much as anyone. He’s snagged an interception and has two fumble recoveries, including one that sealed a division win over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday. It was the Lions defense's 11th turnover of the year, just three shy of the team’s 2016 total.
The Lions, like every NFL team, emphasize turnovers. You have always been able to see it in practice, as defenders try to jar the ball loose from the receivers and ball carriers well after the whistle has blown (which doubles as an opportunity for offensive players to work on ball security), and players trained to jump on every loose ball, including incomplete passes.
But this year, the Lions increased their focus on generating takeaways. They expanded the turnover circuit that’s part of the practice routine, which sees defenders working on everything from the proper form to punch a ball out to tracking and catching tipped passes.
Referencing a motto made popular by former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said, “You achieve what you emphasize.”
Some may look at the types of turnovers the Lions have generated — including a couple interceptions off dropped passes and the occasional fumble where the ball seemed to drop into their laps — and suggest they’ve been more about luck than talent. But defensive coordinator Teryl Austin doesn’t believe luck has anything to do with his players being in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t take anything for a fluke,” Austin said. “We deserved it. Bottom line. If we get an interception, it’s because we’re running to the ball. We’re in the right spots. So, I won’t ever qualify any turnover as, well, it’s something that they did. It’s something we did.”
Safety Glover Quin, Detroit’s cerebral safety who has two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles through the first four games, said when a team is struggling to force turnovers, like the Lions last season, it can make a defense desperate. Guys will start trying too hard and playing outside the scheme, leading to breakdowns, which compounds the problems.
Beyond the hustle cited by Austin, Quin credited strong fundamentals for getting the ball rolling, and increasing confidence for the sustained success.
“It’s human nature, a lot of things are habits,” Quin said. “When you win, you get used to winning and you try to find more ways to win. When you lose a lot, you get used to losing and you find a lot of ways to lose. I look at (turnovers) the same way.
“When you make a lot of turnovers, you get used to forcing turnovers and the confidence is very high being able to generate some, some type of way. Everyone feels like, ‘I can make that play, we can make that play,’ and they tend to happen.”
This week, the Lions welcome the Carolina Panthers to town, a team which has managed to buck trends by starting the season 3-1 despite being minus-five in turnover margin.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the Panthers have been fortunate with where they’ve turned the ball over, generally deep in their opponent’s territory, negating the impact because of the stellar play of the team’s defense.
Detroit, on the other hand, is leading the NFL in starting field position in large part to the turnovers they’ve forced. On Sunday, they’ll look to keep the party going.