Niyo: Warning signs pointed to Lions’ defensive woes

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — They got a bit older. They got a bit slower. And even with the addition of Haloti Ngata, they got noticeably thinner.

So on a day where the offense — and the coaching staff — rightly received the Lions’ share of the blame, let’s not pretend like this was entirely unexpected.

Defensively, that is.

The warning signs were there, and not just the billboards lamenting Ndamukong Suh’s free-agent departure back in March.

The Lions began this season with a completely remade defensive line, replacing four key pieces from a position group that was the strength of this team in 2014 when the Lions ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing defense, No. 2 in total defense and No. 3 in scoring defense.

When DeAndre Levy was sidelined by a hip injury in the preseason, the Lions suddenly were vulnerable at linebacker, too, relying more heavily on 30-year-old Stephen Tulloch, who was coming off ACL surgery, and a collection of backups playing expanded roles.

And while the secondary returned intact, everyone understood that a 35-year-old corner – even as well as Rashean Mathis played a year ago – might make for an easy target.

Sure enough, they’ve struggled — mightily, at times — and Sunday’s 28-19 loss to the Vikings at Ford Field was another painful reminder: Teryl Austin’s defense simply isn’t good enough to bail out Joe Lombardi’s offense anymore.

Not to this extent, anyway.

“Somebody has to make a big play,” safety Glover Quin said Sunday, again and again, in a locker room that’s clearly out of answers. “We just haven’t done that enough this season.”

Unraveling ‘D’

Think back a year ago, though, when the Lions’ offense really wasn’t very good — better than this, obviously, but not by a lot. And remember how this team managed to win games like this one. Even games against this opponent, for that matter.

Detroit’s front four completely dismantled the Vikings in their first meeting in 2014, sacking Teddy Bridgewater eight times and picking off three of his passes. That was a good thing, too, as the offense converted just 1-of-13 third downs and finished with 255 total yards in a 17-3 win.

In the second meeting, with Bridgewater far more comfortable late in his rookie season, the defense gave up some yardage. But they still came up with enough big plays — including a pair of interceptions that led to 10 first-half points — to offset a dismal offensive showing in a 16-14 win.

Sunday, they came up with a few big plays, particularly in the red zone. The Lions finished with 13 tackles for loss and four sacks, hitting Bridgewater 11 times in all, forcing a fumble as well. But they needed a few more.

And as Lions coach Jim Caldwell said, “We never, I don’t think, really stopped them completely defensively.”

No, they didn’t, and as the game dragged on and the fatigue set in, while the offense was busy looking “inept,” as Caldwell put it, the defense was simply overwhelmed. Bridgewater finished 25-of-35 for 316 yards and two touchdowns, and the Vikings added 140 yards rushing while running twice as many plays — much like that opening loss at San Diego — until the final minutes.

The Lions gave up three plays of 30 or more yards in the third quarter, when things really unraveled, and six of 20-plus for the game.

Even with Ngata back from injury, the front four lacks the depth that was such a strength a year ago. The linebackers simply can’t account for Levy’s absence, both in coverage and in containing the run. (The ones with speed can’t seem to get on the field, for whatever reason.) And perhaps because of all that, the secondary is getting exposed in ways that it didn’t often a year ago.

Cleaning up

One big play came on the Vikings’ opening drive of the second half, as rookie receiver Stefon Diggs beat Mathis badly with a double move and made a diving catch in the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown that gave Minnesota its first lead at 22-17.

Mathis, who suffered an apparent concussion Sunday, possibly stemming from an early first-quarter hit, wasn’t allowed to speak with reporters afterward. But there isn’t much to say at this point, is there?

“Defensively, we’ve got to be able to put the fire out,” Quin said. “We’ve got to be able to. And we know that we haven’t done it.”

They didn’t on the next possession, either, after the Lions went three-and-out again. That’s when Austin’s crew committed a cardinal sin against Adrian Peterson, who took the handoff on first down at his own 22. Left defensive end Jason Jones got buried inside and linebacker Travis Lewis failed to set the edge, whiffing on a tackle as Peterson broke free. Safety James Ihedigbo had no chance after taking a bad angle, and only Ezekiel Ansah’s downfield hustle kept it from being a touchdown.

The Lions only allowed 67 rushing yards on the Vikings other 34 carries Sunday. But that 75-yarder set up another Blair Walsh field goal — his fourth of five Sunday — and extended a lead that already was too much for the Lions, who were going nowhere against Mike Zimmer’s defense.

“It’s just a play here and a play there that we need to clean up,” Ihedigbo insisted.

But it’s too late for that now. This season is already a mess. And that’s partly because last year’s clean-up crew is no longer on the job.