Niyo: Lions defense challenges itself to play better

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Lions' Kyle Van Noy, left, and James Ihedigbo wrap up Raiders running back Latavius Murray in the third quarter.

Detroit — They didn’t need to look in a mirror.

All they needed was to watch the game film, and do a little reflecting.

The Lions’ defense knew this season had become a running joke. And after a disastrous trip overseas, where the Kansas City Chiefs made a complete mockery of things, the fallout was everywhere.

The head coach already had jettisoned three assistants, including the offensive coordinator. The owner fired the team president and the general manager. And as the players scattered for their bye week in early November, everyone knew the score.

“We had to look in the mirror over the bye week and try to make some changes,” said Glover Quin, one of the Lions’ veteran leaders. “The front office made some changes, and as players we had to take it upon ourselves, like, ‘Hey, man, if we don’t play better, there’s gonna be a whole lot of new people here, players included.’ ”

And for the defense, the unit that had anchored the Lions’ success a year ago, the changes had to come from within.

“We had to do a lot of soul searching,” defensive end Jason Jones admitted. “Last year was probably one of the best years we’ve had. And to see this year, and how it had been going, we’ve got too much pride (to play like that.)”

So they talked about it, they challenged each other — “We were real critical of ourselves and our individual efforts,” said Daryl Tapp, another of the Lions’ vets up front — and then they got back to work.

Two weeks later, the season is still mostly shot — even with a favorable second-half schedule — and more changes likely are in store for this team. A year from now, there probably will be a lot of new people here, players included.

Yet thanks largely to this defense — still undermanned, but no longer overmatched — the Lions are looking competitive again, actually playing with some confidence. And considering only one of their six remaining opponents has a winning record (Green Bay), who knows how far that’ll take them.

Sunday’s 18-13 victory over the Raiders at Ford Field was the second straight solid outing from Teryl Austin’s crew, which stymied one of the league’s more explosive offenses from start to finish.

The Lions held the Raiders to 47 yards rushing on 18 carries, a week after limiting the Packers to 50 yards on 21 carries. That’s a far cry from the 206 yards they’d allowed the Chiefs in London, or in the week prior as Detroit — which led the league in rushing defense a year ago — ranked among the NFL’s five worst teams against the run.

Austin a proper hire

Sunday, though, they also bottled up the league’s sixth-ranked passing attack, holding Derek Carr to a season-worst 169 yards and just 12 completions. They gave up only one play of 25-plus yards, pitched a first-half shutout and then finished with a dominant fourth-quarter as Oakland went for minus-7 yards and a safety on its two fourth-quarter possessions.

“Our defense played big all game,” said quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose efficient, turnover-free game was another positive sign.

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But Austin’s work with a patchwork defense is one that bears watching the rest of the way, especially as we wait to see what the new leadership does in the coming months. Team president Rod Wood said he expects to hire a consultant soon to lead the search for a new GM, and then it’ll be time to decide the fate of Jim Caldwell and his staff.

Austin emerged as a head-coaching candidate around the NFL after last year’s success. And though the Lions’ awful start certainly cast some doubt there, he’s showing again why this was one hire Caldwell got right.

Papering over the holes left by Ndamukong Suh (free agency) and DeAndre Levy (injury) was impossible. And the over-reliance on vets like Stephen Tulloch and James Ihedigbo to start the season proved costly. But his game plans the last couple weeks — and the hastily-wrapped packages he’s using to deliver better results — shouldn’t go unnoticed.

“They put together some great plans and they perform well,” Caldwell said. “The guys grab on to it, they believe in it, they execute it, which is great. Teryl does a very good job. He can adjust, he’s strategically very, very bright, and he gets the guys to play hard.”

A week ago, the Lions blitzed on nearly 40 percent of Aaron Rodgers’ career-high 65 dropbacks, something they were reluctant to do in the past. But it paid off in the end, as the secondary held up in press coverage.

Sunday, it was effective again — albeit in smaller doses — against Carr, a young quarterback who has been excellent against the blitz this season. And Darius Slay, who played a big role in the win at Green Bay, was up to the challenge again, limiting rookie star Amari Cooper to one catch and four yards on four targets.

Offense takes a knee

“It was rough the first eight weeks,” Slay said. “But now we’re just turning the whole thing around. Playing more aggressive defense, trusting each other and having more fun.”

It’s fun while it lasts, I guess. And who knows how long it will with this team. But after Ziggy Ansah’s pass rush drew a safety midway through the fourth quarter, the defense’s day was done early, as Stafford & Co. managed to run out the clock. That the Lions’ first victory formation of the season came after the first snowfall tells you all you need to know about this season.

“But you couldn’t ask for a better way to end the game, with the offense taking a knee,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “That’s how you want to end the game in the NFL.”

And for this Lions’ defense, even if it’s too little and too late, that’s a start.