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Niyo: Lions' defense needs some tough love

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Seattle quarterback Russel Wilson is sacked by Lions Ezekiel Ansah in the first quarter.

Allen Park — Bob Quinn was up-front about the Lions’ issues last spring during his first draft as general manager, explaining an obvious trend — his first three picks all weighed 300-plus pounds — by saying simply, “You win football games in the trenches.”

And if he’s honest about where things stand now, on the heels of a winning season and another quick playoff exit for this franchise, he’ll keep walking that line.

Because while his initial draft picks certainly panned out — starting with Taylor Decker exceeding expectations at left tackle and A’Shawn Robinson coming on strong in the middle of the Lions’ defensive front — his team fell short largely because it couldn’t win in the trenches.

There were myriad issues for the Lions’ late-season collapse, and there are many needs as Quinn and his staff turn their attention to the offseason. But it’d be foolish not to start where it ends, with a team that still can’t run the ball with any consistency and, in particular, with a defense that got mauled when it mattered most.

After holding up well enough against the run early in the season, the Lions fell apart down the stretch, allowing opponents an average of 152 rushing yards — at 4.6 yards per carry — in their final four games. Adding insult to injury in Saturday night’s playoff loss, it was a terrible Seahawks offensive line that helped spring Thomas Rawls, who came in averaging 3.2 yards per carry, for a franchise playoff-record 161 yards.

“We couldn’t stop the run,” safety Glover Quin said. “And I say it every week, if you can’t stop the run, it makes it tough to win.”

Getting aggressive

It made it virtually impossible in the end, obviously. But it was a season-long cover-up that really should guide the Lions’ thinking as they tackle their personnel shortcomings this winter.

They finished the regular season with just 26 sacks, tied for 30th in the NFL with the hapless Cleveland Browns. Not coincidentally, they also finished 28th in the league in takeaways, grouped at the bottom with four other teams — Chicago, Jacksonville, Cleveland and the New York Jets. That’s not the kind of company you should be keeping if you expect to get ahead.

Abdullah still sees himself as answer to Lions' run game

And that’s why it’s imperative that they focus on improving that defensive front seven if they want to aggressively take the next step as a playoff team. Aggressive being the operative word there, because the Lions were anything but that this season.

By design, they played Charmin-soft coverage for most of the season, trying to limit big plays and points — with a reasonable measure of success on both counts — at the expense of almost everything else. That’s hardly ideal, but as defensive coordinator Teryl Austin openly admitted last month, “we have to try to figure out what helps us win.”

Of course, that “winning” strategy resulted in opposing quarterbacks completing an NFL-record 72.7 percent of their passes against the Lions this season, besting the previous highs allowed by a 2-14 Colts team in 2011 (Jim Caldwell’s last year in Indianapolis) and the 2007 Lions. (Even the winless 2008 Lions only allowed a 68.5 completion percentage.)

This Lions team also ranked 31st in third-down defense, as opponents — even ones with quarterbacks like Case Keenum and Brock Osweiler — took advantage of their bend-but-don’t-break approach with alarming efficiency.

Shoring up the defense

So how does Detroit break out of that trend, which really began a year ago as the Lions tried to salvage a season — and the coaches their jobs — after a disastrous start?

That’s where Quinn has to provide some answers. He won’t have the same luxury he had in his first draft, with only seven total picks right now (he had 10 in 2016), starting with the No. 21 overall choice. (The Lions aren’t projected to receive any compensatory picks this year, either.) But this franchise finally is out of salary-cap hell, and Quinn could have upwards of $40 million in cap space at his disposal.

Ezekiel Ansah finally started to look like his Pro Bowl self by season’s end, after battling ankle and shoulder injuries for months, but his two-sack effort against Seattle matched his regular-season total. And while Kerry Hyder was a surprise contributor after working his way up from the practice squad — he finished with a team-high eight sacks and 19 quarterback hits — there’s an obvious need for a starter opposite Ansah. Devin Taylor is a pending free agent, and after the way his first full season as a starter went — he finished with 4.5 sacks and 28 tackles in 665 snaps — it seems unlikely Quinn would bring him back.

They could use some push inside, too, regardless of whether veteran Haloti Ngata is back for one more season. The strengths of the top-ranked defense the Lions built in 2014 started with the depth up front, and an ability to collapse the pocket from the inside out. But that now seems more like a weakness, and it has to be an offseason priority.

So does the lack of playmaking talent — and depth — at the linebacker position, even if those weaknesses are only magnified by the problems up front. Tahir Whitehead went from part-time starter outside to the full-time starter inside this season and finished as the NFL’s second-worst rated linebacker among qualifying players, according to Pro Football Focus.

That seems a bit harsh, especially considering what he was asked to do. But the absence of DeAndre Levy — and Levy hardly looked like a difference-maker when he finally did make it back on the field in mid-December — left everyone looking out of place at times.

It’s unclear just how much confidence there is within the organization about Levy’s status moving forward. But it’s painfully clear they’ll need to address that position through the draft or free agency — or perhaps both — as well.

There are other needs, obviously, on both sides of the ball. More speed at the receiver position. More size at cornerback. Possibly a starter or two on the offensive line. Another tight end.

But for all the Year 1 improvements under Quinn, there’s no shame in admitting he’s right where he started, in some respects. @JohnNiyo