Katzenstein: Believe it or not, Lions secondary is good

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

I did not expect to write the following sentence this year and potentially not for the next few years.

The Lions have a good secondary.

And if the defensive backs continue playing as they have in recent weeks, the Lions will not only finish with a top-10 defense, but could indeed maintain their current No. 1 ranking for the entire season.

All the people who continue to say the Lions messed up by not drafting secondary help in the first round clearly aren't seeing what's happening this year. It would be hard for an established player to crack the current starting secondary -- much less a rookie -- that features four players who are exceeding expectations.

Glover Quin was solid in his first year with the Lions in 2013, but he was playing out of position at strong safety. Now that he's back to free safety, Quin has used his cornerback-like coverage skills to grab three interceptions, already tied for a career high in a season.

The Lions signed James Ihedigbo hoping to add a hard-hitting strong safety at a bargain rate. Since returning from a nerve injury in Week 4, Ihedigbo has proven to be a well-rounded player with 23 tackles, three for loss, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

Cornerback Rashean Mathis is forcing me to use the "turning-back-the-clock" cliché. If I didn't know he was 34, it'd be impossible to guess from his play.

Then there's Darius Slay, who would be the most confident player in any locker rooms. As a rookie, Slay would allow big plays in succession and had little desire to tackle, but in his second season, he's playing with the swagger he displays when he talks.

If you're hesitant to trust the Lions' secondary, I completely understand, but maybe you'll trust the analytics folks at Pro Football Focus. Among safeties, Quin ranks third and Ihedigbo is tied for ninth despite missing three games. At cornerback, Slay is 23rd and Mathis is 26th. Neither is a shutdown cornerback, but both have been consistently solid, which is more than anyone could say about the position in Detroit for most of the past decade.

The secondary has also had big-time contributions from players who weren't expected to play much on defense, particularly safety Isa Abdul-Quddus and nickel cornerback Danny Gorrer.

Even after allowing a season-high 408 yards to the Saints Sunday, the Lions rank No. 1 in overall defense with opponents averaging 290.3 yards per game.

After allowing 99.8 rushing yards per game last year, ranking sixth in the NFL, it comes as little surprise the Lions are stopping the run again in 2014, ranking second allowing just 73.4 yards per game.

The pass defense, though, has made a drastic improvement with the Lions ranking seventh and allowing just 216.9 yards through the air, a full 30 yards less than 2013, when they ranked 23rd.

The front seven deserves plenty of credit. Thanks largely to pressure by the defensive linemen, the Lions have 21 sacks already this season, but after a Week 6 win over the Vikings, Quin explained how the front and back end work hand in hand.

"We had eight sacks, but if you look at the film, he has nowhere to throw the ball," he said.

The Lions already have eight interceptions this year, four of which came in the past two games. Yes, three of those interceptions are from linebackers, but when defensive backs cover well, quarterbacks often make mistakes. In 2013, the Lions had 15 picks. In 2012, they had just 11. The secondary is a big reason the Lions have had more turnover opportunities this year.

Quin's interception on Sunday couldn't have come at a better time, giving the Lions the ball at the New Orleans 14, down six, with 3:10 remaining.

And even though Drew Brees picked the Lions apart for much of the day with 342 yards, the Lions' secondary played tight enough late to escape with a 24-23 victory.

By containing Brees, and Aaron Rodgers in Week 3, the defensive backs have passed their two biggest tests. Now, they have to prove that a seven-game stretch is an accurate representation.

Around the NFC North

* The Packers (5-2) jumped out to a 28-0 lead Sunday before beating the Panthers 38-17. Rodgers is in a ridiculous zone right now with 18 touchdown passes and just one interception this season.

* Jay Cutler and the Bears (3-4) didn't have the same fortune Sunday in a loss to the Dolphins, 27-14, at Soldier Field. The Bears are 0-3 at home, and it doesn't help when Cutler throws an interception, loses a fumble and puts two more on the grass.

* Teddy Bridgewater didn't throw an interception in his first two NFL appearances. In the past two games, he's thrown five picks. But he doesn't deserve all the blame as the Vikings fell to the Bills, 17-6, after Sammy Watkins caught a touchdown pass with one second left.

Around the NFL

* What DeMarco Murray is doing right now is unbelievable. Through seven games, he has 913 rushing yards for the Cowboys, putting him on pace to eclipse 2,000 yards this season. It's hard to see him slowing down, and Dallas is 6-1 thanks to him and Tony Romo.

* If all the reports about Percy Harvin's anger issues in Seattle are true, then trading him to the Jets made sense. Conversely, it would make no sense for the Jets, who have enough problems. However, as much as Harvin might have impacted team chemistry negatively, the Seahawks will miss how he positively affected the offense, especially after losing to the Rams, 28-26 Sunday.

* I've made no secret that I didn't expect Denard Robinson to be successful in the NFL, but he took control of the Jaguars' running back job with 127 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries Sunday in a win over Cleveland.