Rogers: Lions’ passive defense flirting with trouble
Allen Park — Lost in the hoopla of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s successful stat line and string of dramatic come-from-behind victories is how awful the Lions defense has been this season.
The team has attempted to employ a bend-don’t-break philosophy only to repeatedly shatter. There have been some unquestionably timely plays — two game-ending interceptions and two forced fumbles — that have factored into the team’s recent three-game winning streak.
But from kickoff to final whistle, there isn’t a defense playing worse than Detroit.
Sure, you can look at the obvious numbers.
■There are seven teams giving up more yards and 11 giving up more points, but that’s the Lions style of play covering distracting you from the underlying issues.
■ No team is allowing longer drives. The Lions are letting opponents gain an average of 42.1 yards each possession.
■ No team is forcing fewer three-and-outs than the eight recorded by the Lions.
■ And no one has been worse in the red zone, where the team is giving up a touchdown 78.3 percent of the time.
This is a result of inferior personnel and conservative coaching.
Coming into the season, we overvalued the defensive talent. We’re not talking about Darius Slay, Glover Quin or Ziggy Ansah. Those guys are still top-tier starters. But the other guys are falling short, even after general manager Bob Quinn promised to address the unit’s depth this offseason.
As injuries have hit, with DeAndre Levy, Haloti Ngata and Ansah each missing multiple games, the unit has folded in on itself.
Philosophically, when coordinator Teryl Austin joined the Lions in 2014, he put an emphasis on preventing big plays.
“I think the way you become a game-changing defense is you cut down on the amount of big plays because those are demoralizing,” he said.
The short stuff
On the surface, it makes sense, but that focus has led to the Lions surrendering too much in the underneath passing game. The team is consistently conceding short, efficient throws, which negates the defensive line’s ability to rush the passer and leads to far too many third-and-short situations.
Oh, did we mention the Lions defense ranks last in third-down percentage, with opponents converting 51.2 percent? That’s anchored by 19 conversions on 21 attempts of 2 or fewer yards.
“We had nine third-and-4 or less last week,” Austin said. “You can’t win with that in this league. And really, it’s not our third down I think is the problem, it’s our second-down defense because we’re not getting them into third-and-longs and so we’re making a focus on that.”
But it’s the soft coverage, the fear of the big play, that’s putting the Lions in these situations. Only the Saints and Raiders are giving up more yardage on first down and four teams are worse on second down.
“You just make what we call a business decision and try to get them, when you have an opportunity to get them into the third-and-longs and not giving up something big,” Austin said. “Because I still believe that you don’t want the ball to go over top of you just to try to get some type of third-down percentage.”
Something has to change. The Lions can’t continue to balance on this edge where the defense lives and dies on their opponents making errors, especially when it is doing little to force them. The Lions have to take it take it to opponents, starting with more aggressive coverage on early downs.
Yeah, you might get beat for some more big plays, but overall, it’s not like it can be any worse.
And who knows, maybe some added aggressiveness will lead to some more turnovers. The Lions certainly aren’t racking up the interceptions with their current style of play, netting three in seven games.
Stafford and the offense have been bailing the defense out. He’s had to orchestrate a winning drive in the closing minute of all four victories. He’s a proven commodity in those situations, but it’s unreasonable to expect this rate of success to continue.
It’s time for the defense to start shouldering some of the load if this team has playoff aspirations.