Wojo: Stout defense makes everything easier for Lions

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The best player on defense would rather not talk about himself, whether addressing his contract or his choice of breakfast meats. The best player on offense would rather not talk about himself, whether addressing his stats, his injuries or his fame.

The personality traits of Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson may be coincidental, but the Lions' understated rise is not. The Lions have had promising teams before — not many, granted — with flashier offenses and louder stars, but as they churn toward the playoffs at 10-4, they're revealing a new element. Goodbye, style; hello, substance.

It's reflected in the stout defense, first in the NFL in points allowed, second in yards allowed. It's reflected in the soft-spoken intellect of the coach, Jim Caldwell, who never makes it about him.

The Lions used to be all about Johnson and Matthew Stafford, and if this team plans to turn a promising season into a special one, they'll have to deliver, of course. But when Stafford throws for 5,038 yards, as he did in 2011, and Johnson has 1,964 receiving yards, as he did in 2012, and the Lions have one brief playoff appearance during their tenure, those are empty calories. The number that matters more is 16, the Lions' turnover total, on pace to be lowest in team history.

It's not an easy shift, but the Lions so far are pulling it off. If they beat the woeful Bears on Sunday in Chicago, they'll clinch at least a wild-card spot. Then if they beat the Packers for the first time on the road since 1991, they'll win the NFC North and land a home playoff game. We still have no idea how far the Lions can go, but at least they show signs of legitimacy, not fanciful trickery.

10 interceptions is key

It's mid-December, and does anybody even know Stafford's and Johnson's yardage totals, or Suh's sack total? To me, the most fascinating digit is 10 — the combined number of interceptions by safeties Glover Quin (six, tied for the league lead) and James Ihedigbo. For safeties to pick off that many, a defense has to be working in concert. First-time coordinator Teryl Austin has done a tremendous job putting the right players in the right spots, but it only works if they understand it and have the talent to do it.

"Team work makes the dream work, that's what we do," Quin said Wednesday. "We all have a role and a responsibility. Look at Suh. He knows if we're not playing well on the back end, he's not gonna have that much impact, because the quarterback is just gonna get rid of the ball. And if our linebackers aren't playing well, then Suh's gonna get double-teamed."


"And if teams say, heck with it, we're just gonna make the linebackers beat us, OK, then (DeAndre) Levy is gonna have 25 tackles. If they say, hey, we're gonna try to throw it, then Ziggy (Ansah) or somebody is gonna get sacks. And if they say, we're gonna throw it before Ziggy gets a sack, then hopefully somebody in the secondary catches an interception."

That's the way it works, but we've almost never seen it work for a Lions defense. Quin is a bright, engaging communicator and so is Ihedigbo, and I don't think that's by accident. The Lions defense isn't much different, personnel-wise, than last year's group, which ranked 18th in points and 10th in yards allowed, but there's an unmistakable cohesiveness.

Ihedigbo is one of the few newcomers, and he has similar traits to Levy, Suh, cornerback Rashean Mathis and others. He's smart, and the Lions play like a smarter team. Louis Delmas was a rambunctious safety who spent most of his time here trying to stay healthy and make flashy plays. You know how many interceptions he had in five seasons? Six, Quin's total in one season.

That's not even a knock on Delmas. It's a commentary on what Caldwell values. The Lions haven't appreciably reduced their penalties, and that's part of the offense's problems. But they've markedly reduced their turnovers and increased their takeaways. Stafford has 10 interceptions after tossing 19 a year ago, and is less likely to force the ball to Johnson in double coverage

"You have to make it a priority," Caldwell said of the low-turnover mantra. "You keep looking for ways to reinforce it, you keep talking about it, and after a while they start to believe it. And once they start to believe it, you'll see they start to take care of the ball a little bit better."

'Smart' wins

Were Stafford's and Johnson's gaudy numbers in the past a sign of selfishness? Not at all. Without a decent defense, the Lions reasonably felt the best way to win was to wing it. But in 2012 and 2013 combined, they were minus-28 in turnover ratio. This season, they're plus-8.

Johnson has battled an ankle injury and has 935 receiving yards, on pace for his lowest total in five years, although he had a big game in the earlier victory over Chicago because the Bears prefer man-to-man coverage. Golden Tate has been the perfect receiving complement, and Johnson says he doesn't miss the days of piling up historic numbers. Neither does Stafford, who has worked hard to alter his approach. He hasn't thrown an interception the past three games, matching the longest stretch of his career.

Caldwell preaches "play smart, not scared," and when you have a defense as good as this one, it makes less sense to take chances on offense. It also makes more sense to let the defenders loose when you trust they know what they're doing.

"There have to be times when you can't be afraid to go down in flames, and I think our guys understand that," Caldwell said. "It's all across the board (on defense) – lining up in the right spot, getting the call recognized, getting the proper alignment. All those things have to do with intellect."

It's always smart to do what you do best, and for the Lions, that means leaning on their defense for substance and sustenance. For this team to sustain, the offense eventually will have to do more, but that's different than trying to do too much.