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Niyo: Overlooked defense gives Lions life

John Niyo
DetroitNews-Unknown

 

Allen Park — It’s the offense that gets noticed. It’s the play of Matthew Stafford & Co. that draws attention, and deservedly so, after all these heart-stopping, fourth-quarter comebacks.

But the way the Lions’ defense has rallied this season -- and the way it has fashioned its own flair for the dramatic -- has nearly as much to do with where this team is now, on the verge of clinching a playoff berth few in Detroit expected.

Fewer still after watching the Lions’ defense getting picked apart early this season, first by Andrew Luck and then by a luckless string of quarterbacks that included Brian Hoyer, Case Keenum and Brock Osweiler.

Yet as the Lions have rattled off five consecutive wins to seize control of the NFC North division, and won eight of their last nine, that same defense is looking much healthier and happier, though hardly haughtier.

They’ve held seven consecutive opponents to 20 points or less, the first time Detroit’s defense has put together a string like that since 1961. And heading into Sunday’s game against the Giants, the Lions are feeling pretty good about where they stand, even if the rest of us aren’t so sure how or why they’ve gotten from there to here.

“The points alone, it’s impressive,” said Teryl Austin, whose defense has rebounded from a slow start for the second year in a row. “The guys have done a great job in terms of finding ways to keep people out of the end zone, and that’s the name of the game.”

There are more games to come, of course, and the stakes get higher as the days get shorter in this league. The opponents will get tougher from here, too, with dates looming against two of the NFL’s top seven scoring offenses in Dallas and Green Bay to end the regular season.

Sunday’s matchup may seem less daunting, at least statistically, facing a Giants team that’s averaging fewer than 20 points a game on its own. But given the Lions’ track record — they’ve trailed in the fourth quarter in 12 of 13 games this season — as well as the game-breaking presence of Odell Beckham, it’s obvious nothing comes easy for this team.

And in that sense, the Lions’ are well-conditioned on both sides of the ball, though we tend to overlook that.

“I guess the pressure has been on us so much, we’re just kind of used to handling it now,” laughed Devin Taylor, the Lions’ defensive end. “So you don’t see us go into a panic situation at the end of the game. But at the same time, we know we’ve got to get a stop or get the ball back to our offense to give them an opportunity.”

 

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And more often than not, they have. Last week, they pitched a fourth-quarter shutout against the Bears while Stafford made amends for his own pick-six. The week before, they held the high-powered Saints offense to just one touchdown and capped the game with consecutive interceptions. For the season, they boast an NFL-best five interceptions in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter — all of them either sealing a win or setting the stage for one.

Mix and match

Austin, for his part, has had to mix and match his personnel more this season than in either of his first two years in Detroit. He lost DeAndre Levy to a knee injury after the season opener, Ziggy Ansah to a high-ankle sprain in Week 2, Haloti Ngata to a shoulder injury in Week 5 and then Darius Slay to a hamstring injury just before the midseason bye week.

That’s arguably four of Detroit’s five best defensive players who’ve missed a combined 19 games and were limited in several others. And given the Lions’ other shortcomings on that side of the ball — the linebackers, for one — it has forced Austin to get more creative and conservative at the same time.

The Lions are disguising more soft coverages and relying on sure tackling, doing to other teams what they’ve generally done to Stafford and the Lions’ offense, bending without breaking and waiting for the other guy to blink.

Time of possession

Detroit’s defense still ranks last in the league in opponents’ average time of possession per drive, and 31st in average yards allowed per drive this season, according to Football Outsiders. (The Lions’ offense, conversely, ranks first in both those categories, as Stafford has cut down his turnovers.)

But they’ve managed to limit big plays — they rank fourth in the NFC in giving up pass plays of 25-plus yards and runs of 10 or more — and they’ve vastly improved their third-down defense the last couple months.

“I think we realized since teams are going to do a lot of the short (passing) game on us, we have to get better at tackling,” said Ngata, who is playing as well as he has in a few years. “(Austin) and the coaches all have emphasized being better tacklers. And we took it upon ourselves to make sure not to let each other down and make the play when it comes to you.’’

And as some of the key starters have come back — Levy finally rejoined the fray last week, albeit in a limited role — the pieces have started to fall in to place, “so now everything works together,” Taylor said.

It starts up front, where the run fits are more seamless and the yards have been harder to come by. The Lions have held their last six opponents under 100 yards rushing, allowing an average of just 72.8 yards per game. And while this doesn’t compare to the ferocious front the Lions’ last playoff run was built on in 2014, with Ndamukong Suh anchoring a unit that led the NFL, their coach isn’t worried about comparisons right now.

“I mean, I know our first year here we were really, really salty on defense, in a different way,” Austin said. “But in terms of keeping guys out of the end zone, this is as good as it gets.”

Or as good as it needs to be, maybe. Either way, it’s a positive trend, and one they’ll need to continue.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com: @JohnNiyo