Niyo: Lions are beginning to pass the feel test

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Lions' Jamal Agnew runs back a punt 88 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

East Rutherford, N.J. — There’s nothing worse than a passive-aggressive defense.

Especially in the NFL, where if you’re not the predator, you’ll end up the prey, sooner or later.

The Lions’ defense felt that way quite a lot last season, a wounded animal that did what it could to survive, through schematic design or simple desperation.

But two weeks into a new year, it doesn’t just look different with this team, now 2-0 and alone atop the NFC North after a 24-10 dismantling of the New York Giants on Monday night. No, it’s more than that.

“It just feels different,” Glover Quin said.

And to hear the Lions’ veteran safety talk, that feeling has been building for months, through offseason workouts and training camp and even an up-and-down preseason showing.

“The vibe was different, the focus was different,” Quin said. “Everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s seeing the same thing. It’s good. It’s a good feeling.”

Monday night, it was a welcome sound, too, as the Giants’ first possession was over nearly as soon as it began. A run for no gain. A strip-sack fumble by Haloti Ngata that was overturned on replay review. And then a third-down run that felt like submission, prompting the crowd of 77,004 to unleash the first of many collective boos.

“You know, that’s cool,” Quin said, laughing. “We’re just trying to get stops. That’s our job, going out there and trying to get stops.”

Nailed it

They got plenty of them Monday, limiting the Giants to just 80 total yards in the first half and 62 rushing yards for the game. They also racked up five sacks — three by Ezekiel Ansah — and eight tackles for loss. And Tahir Whitehead’s interception didn’t simply erase Matthew Stafford’s lone turnover of the game — a fumble on a third-down sack in Giants territory. It also gave the Lions offense a short field to set up the go-ahead score midway through the second quarter.

“Our defense was nails tonight,” Stafford said.

Actually, the defense has been the hammer these first two weeks. And whatever you think of the competition — the Cardinals and Giants aren’t exactly juggernauts — it’s still noteworthy. Not just for the results, either.

It’s the way this defense has gone about it’s business, with greater confidence and noticeably more aggression. A year ago, the Lions’ offense spent much of the season doing what it could to protect the defense, which lacked a consistent pass rush and struggled to get off the field, either with turnovers or third-down stops.

Thus far, that hasn’t been a problem. The Lions held the Giants to eight drives of four plays or fewer, a week after limiting the Cardinals to a half-dozen of those. (Four of the Giants’ five first-half possessions netted a total of 2 yards.)

Throw in five turnovers and 15 passes defended in two games and it’s hard not to see what Quin was talking about. Or understand why Stafford was smiling the way he was as he talked about his team’s defense.

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“They’re doing a heckuva job,” he said. “Getting after the quarterback a bunch, shutting down the run early, creating turnovers and … guys made big-time plays.”

Coming up big

Like the play Quandre Diggs made on a fourth-down stop midway through the fourth quarter, tackling Shane Vereen just short of the sticks. Or the one Darius Slay made on the Giants’ next series, stumbling in coverage on a third-down pass from Manning to Evan Engram near the goal line, but recovering in time to deliver a perfectly-timed hit to break up the play.

“I mean, a touchdown there, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Stafford said. “Slay making that play is huge. Stopping them on fourth down on the drive before — all these plays are big plays.”

Many of them start with pressure up front, of course, and Monday night that started with Ansah playing like the healthy Pro Bowler we saw only brief glimpses of last season. He completely dominated the Giants’ overmatched left tackle, Ereck Flowers, and finished the game with three sacks.

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“No quarterback wants to get hit,” Quin said. “And I’m pretty sure no left tackle wants to be going against Ziggy when he’s healthy.”

That seemed obvious Monday. And it was probably why Ansah was grinning, too. He had only two sacks all last season while playing through injuries. And after missing all of training camp and the preseason, he looked a bit rusty in the opener. Not so in this game, however.

“The sack looks better than a hurry,” he said. “That is what I’m paid to do, you know, put the quarterback down with the ball in his hands. And I’m just grateful that I was able to get a few today.”

This defense doesn’t just look better, though. It feels better, doesn’t it?

Ansah shrugged and laughed at that suggestion after the game.

“It feels great,” he said.