Tuesday breakdown: Ihedigbo emerges as Lions’ leader

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Lions safety James Ihedigbo strips the ball from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.  Detroit recovered and took it into the end zone in the fourth quarter.

It’s time to talk about the man who, in the absence of DeAndre Levy and Ndamukong Suh, has become the heart and soul of the Lions’ defense, a man who gingerly limped through the locker room after nearly carrying the them to victory in Seattle.

Unfortunately, it’s probably too early to discuss a highlight of an 0-4 start, so here are a couple of thoughts on the 13-10 loss Monday night to the Seahawks.

First, the thing that stuck with me most — oddly enough — was the Lions giving the ball to Zach Zenner on two of the most important plays of the game. Sure, Zenner is going to be a good player, and he did his job. But if the job is to gain 4.5 yards per carry, then the bosses are at fault.

The goal after reaching the red zone with 2:15 remaining — and for the first time in the entire game — should’ve been to score a touchdown. Coach Jim Caldwell said the Lions considered how much time was left in calling the final plays, and really, that should’ve been secondary, especially with how the defense had been playing.

Golden Tate had a slick 22-yard catch on the drive and surely would’ve loved a chance to gain the final 20. Ameer Abdullah had a 9-yard carry on the drive. Maybe, a jump ball to Calvin Johnson would’ve worked. Trust your best guys, Joe Lombardi, and don’t think about anything other than scoring points, Jim Caldwell.

As for the blown call, the ball might’ve bounced out of bounds on its own or Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright could’ve fallen on it. Either way, Seattle safety Kam Chancellor won the play, and the Lions still would’ve had to stop Russell Wilson, who has engineered a game-winning drive in 28.8 percent of his NFL games.

A reason to think the Lions could’ve stopped Wilson brings us back to the main topic. Just as Chancellor made the biggest play for his team, strong safety James Ihedigbo was the star of the night for Detroit.

I was among the people who thought giving a 31-year-old safety a raise after he struggled at the end of 2014 was bad business, though he was absolutely right to ask for more money after a mostly strong season. I also thought Ihedigbo played poorly in Week 1.

Ihedigbo leading the team out of the tunnel in the season opener in San Diego was surprising because this is just his second year on the team. But, since his lackluster performance that day, he’s been a consistent playmaker for the defense, even if the group hasn’t made quite enough to win a game.

Levy and free safety Glover Quin, the top talents on defense, are mostly lead-by-example type players. Ezekiel Ansah, for all his ability, is not a top leader with his limited football experience, and Stephen Tulloch and Haloti Ngata are not matching their performances of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, Ihedigbo has embodied the aggressive style defensive coordinator Teryl Austin wants his defense to have, and with him playing better, he’s become the face of the defense.

Last Monday, Ihedigbo said he thought the Lions, not the Seahawks — with Earl Thomas and Chancellor — had the best safety tandem in the league, and sharing a field with that duo seemed to inspire Ihedigbo as he had eight tackles, one for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that resulted in the Lions’ only touchdown.

After the game, Ihedigbo could barely walk on his left leg, and even though he admitted to being in pain, it’d be shocking to see him miss a game.

An all-around performance like the one Monday is what made Ihedigbo so valuable for the Lions in 2014. If he can be around the ball with opportunities to make splash plays, the Lions defense should continue to excel as it did in the loss.

Ihedigbo is confident, but not brash. He said the Lions showed the people at CenturyLink Field what a top defense looks like. Seahawks fans, of course, have seen a top defense for much of the last three seasons.

“Lights out,” Ihedigbo said of how the Lions defense played. “We put on a show.”

Now, with their new leader stepping to the forefront, the Lions have to show they can win instead of being impressive in a loss.

Around the NFC North

■ The Packers (4-0) remained undefeated and proved they could win in more ways than one in a 17-3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Led by Eddie Lacy’s 90 yards, Green Bay ran for 162 yards, controlling the clock on the road.

■ After falling to 2-2, it’s still hard to tell what kind of team the Vikings are. In a 23-20 road loss to the Denver Broncos, Adrian Peterson had just 16 carries for 81 yards while Teddy Bridgewater threw 41 times.

■ The Bears (1-3) got in the win column Sunday with a 22-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders in Chicago. Quarterback Jay Cutler returned earlier than expected and played through his hamstring injury, but the key was the Bears defense, which held the Raiders to 243 yards.

Around the NFL

■ The Atlanta Falcons improved to 4-0, and this time, receiver Julio Jones wasn’t the star. Instead, second-year running back Devonta Freeman led the way with 149 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, his second straight game with three scores.

■ The Cincinnati Bengals are 4-0, too, after an all-around efficient offensive performance. Andy Dalton threw for 321 yards on 24 attempts, and the Bengals ran for 124 yards and four touchdowns.

*The Arizona Cardinals, the Lions’ next opponent, lost to the St. Louis Rams, 24-22, Sunday, their first loss of the season. Three turnovers by Arizona along with allowing 146 rushing yards to St. Louis rookie running back Todd Gurley led to the defeat.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein