Lions' top-ranked defense leads team's resurgence
Allen Park — The 2014 Lions haven't been this efficient on defense since the 1990s — or earlier.
Consider the numbers:
■ They had eight sacks last weekend against the Vikings, the first time they did that since 1997. They rank first in the NFL in sacks with 20.
■ They have allowed 1,624 yards through six games, an average of 270.7, the fewest since 1991.
■ They have allowed 82 points, the fewest through six games since 1970.
■ They rank first in yards (270.7) and points (13.7).
Strong safety James Ihedigbo didn't want to discuss the success Wednesday because there's 10 games remaining. But the players and coaches don't need to talk much because the numbers speak for themselves.
"I can tell one thing in common with each defense (I played on)," said defensive end Jason Jones, who was with the Titans in 2008 when they were second in points and seventh in yards. "There were playmakers at every position."
The defense should face its biggest test Sunday when the Lions play the Saints, who lead the NFC, averaging 442.8 yards. The Lions have held their past four opponents to 17 or fewer points, the first time they've done that since 1995.
"Obviously it's a challenge for us, but we're going to be up for it," free safety Glover Quin said. "We feel like we're prepared. We feel like we understand the moment, and what's going on.
"Hey, they're the No. 1 offense; we're the No. 1 defense. Let's go to battle."
The success on defense starts up front, especially in the middle with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who's playing at an All-Pro level again. Traditional statistics don't often show Suh's impact — he has three sacks and 15 tackles, but leads defensive tackles with 15 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I think the big thing is the attention that he draws, I think, has a positive effect on the rest of the guys," coach Jim Caldwell said. "Most of the guys can count on a one-on-one in terms of pass rushing and then also defeating blocks in the run game because of him."
Nick Fairley is second among defensive tackles with 12 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, and his improved play has helped in the run and pass games. C.J. Mosley has two sacks at tackle.
Then there's George Johnson, who spent most of 2013 as a free agent. He has four sacks as the No. 3 end, and starter Ezekiel Ansah has four sacks in his second season.
"We're hungry," Jones said. "We see this as a great opportunity for us. This may be the last time this D-line plays together. You never know."
Jones insisted he wasn't talking about the five free agents on the line — Suh, Fairley, Mosley, Johnson and Darryl Tapp. But the extra motivation doesn't hurt.
Having a weak-side linebacker like DeAndre Levy, who ranks fourth with 58 tackles, helps, too. Levy, middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead and strong-side linebacker Ashlee Palmer have given the second level a dose of speed that has caused problems in the run game.
The Lions also have had some of their best secondary play of the past decade. Quin and Ihedigbo have kept plays in front of them, and cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay have limited their mistakes.
As much as the defensive line deserves credit for finishing against Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the secondary played a big role in the performance.
"If you look at the film, he has nowhere to throw the ball," Quin said.
But as well as the defense has played, it's easy to forget about the injuries.
Whitehead is filling in for Stephen Tulloch in the middle, Isa Abdul-Quddus played the first three games for Ihedigbo, Danny Gorrer has played significant time at nickel cornerback, and second-round pick Kyle Van Noy has yet to play.
"Trust your teammates; do your job; don't try to do too much," Ihedigbo said. "Don't try to be out there jumping routes and playing outside the defense. Do your job, and good things will happen."
Lions defense claws its way to the top
A look at where Detroit ranks in the NFL in key defensive statistics this season:
Total defense -- 270.7 YPG
Pass defense -- 197.2 YPG
Scoring defense 13.7 PPG
Rush defense -- 67.5 YPG
Third downs -- 31.1 PCT
Forced fumbles -- 7
Sacks -- 21