Allen Park – The Detroit Lions’ defense is off to a slow start to the season. This is not a recording.
In 2015, the Lions axed offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi after Week 7. The move was justified, but it wasn’t just the team’s offense that was struggling. At the midpoint of the season, the defense ranked near the bottom of the league in almost every meaningful category.
Detroit checked in at 27th in total defense, 32nd in scoring defense and bottom five in opposing passer ranking, third-down conversion rate, rushing yards per game and big plays allowed. In every way, it was a disaster.
But things turned around in the second half, as the unit adjusted to the offseason losses of star players Ndamukong Suh and DeAndre Levy. The Lions allowed 75 fewer yards and 11 fewer points, on average, those final eight games.
Prior to the start of this season, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin talked about what he took away from the experience.
“I also learned, for me, sometimes I might have to be a little bit sooner to make some changes, make some adjustments, instead of letting some things work themselves out like I do sometimes,” he said.
Now, three weeks into the 2016 campaign, that realization might need to be put to the test.
The situations are similar in some respects. Once again, the Lions have largely been without two star players, with Levy and defensive end Ziggy Ansah battling injuries. And again, the defense is allowing too many points, too many big plays and too many third-down conversions.
Austin won’t use the injuries as an excuse, putting the onus on the available players and himself to get the unit turned around.
“There’s always a challenge when you don’t have two really good players out there, but we go into everything trying to take away the best thing that the other team does,” Austin said. “I don’t know if it’s a big thing in terms of a challenge of the game plan. I think it’s a challenge in how we’ve been doing it.
“We have to do what we’re doing better, and we have to just try to execute better,” he said. “I’ve got to give our guys better calls, all those things kind of tie into it, it’s just not one or two guys missing that really upset the apple cart that bad.”
The frustrating thing for Austin has been his unit’s inability to put together a complete game. The defense played well in the first half of the season opener, for three quarters against Tennessee in Week 3 and the second half last week in Green Bay.
He’s looking for consistency for all four quarters and believes that’s coming. And with the team’s upcoming opponent, the Chicago Bears, expected to be without a number of offense starters and struggling to protect the ball (six turnovers), now would be a good time to get back on track.
“I’ve got complete confidence in our guys,” Austin said. “Last year, that core group of our guys, you don’t rebound from a 1-7 start the way we did if you don’t have guys that have great character, and resolve, and mental toughness. I’m very confident that our guys will start getting it turned around, and we’re hoping to start it this week.”
But if they don’t, Austin knows he’ll have to pull the trigger on some changes.
“Right now there’s no panic, we’re not in that stage where we’ve got to make some changes and do some things,” he said. “But if things don’t turn around, obviously we’ll have to do some things in terms of, maybe what we’re doing scheme-wise, or maybe what we’re doing player-wise.
“We’re not at that point yet.”
When asked if he had a deadline to see improvements, Austin didn’t have a specific answer. Nor did his boss, coach Jim Caldwell, saying the need for significant changes varies by the situation.
But you’d have to imagine a loss to the lowly Bears – one of four winless teams around the league – would send the Lions scrambling for solutions.