Allen Park — The Lions, under coach Jim Caldwell, have never made excuses for their shortcomings. But had they asked for some understanding with their under-performing defense earlier this season, we probably would have understood.
Injuries unquestionably crippled the productivity, but as the training room has thinned in recent weeks, it appears the defense is ready to help shoulder the load as the Lions seek their first division crown in 23 years.
For the first two months, Detroit’s offense was doing the heavy lifting. Sure, the defense generated some late-game turnovers in wins over Philadelphia and Los Angeles, but those rare flashes barely covered up the unit’s inefficient and ineffective play.
Through the first half of the season, the Lions defense was among the worst in the league on third down and in the red zone. They also forced among the fewest turnovers. The result was relying on quarterback Matthew Stafford to bail them out, week after week.
There’s a difference between an excuse and a reason. Injuries are part of life in the NFL and it’s why the 'next man up' cliché is a battle cry around the league. Of course, it’s not always that easy.
In training camp, general manager Bob Quinn was pleased with the depth he’d amassed at linebacker. He probably couldn’t have imagined the team would conduct a practice with just two healthy players at the position by the third week of the season.
Josh Bynes and Jonathan Bostic went on injured reserve before the season started. DeAndre Levy played one game before he was shelved for eight weeks and counting. Kyle Van Noy and Antwione Williams also missed time.
But it wasn’t just the linebackers. Arguably, the bigger blows came up front, where Pro Bowl defensive end Ziggy Ansah (ankle) and former All-Pro Haloti Ngata (shoulder) both missed multiple games, sapping the effectiveness of both the team’s run defense and pass rush.
Without a consistent pass rush or a full linebacking corps, opposing quarterbacks picked the Lions apart, completing nearly three quarters of their passes.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin used every tool in his arsenal. He experimented with elaborate combinations of players, particularly in the back end, plus he significantly increased how often the team blitzed. Still, he just couldn’t find the right mix to stop the bleeding.
Austin put the failings on himself. It’s what a good coach does. But he was taking a gun without bullets into battle. He couldn’t say it, but he didn’t stand a chance.
But the Lions are getting healthier, and predictably, things are looking up for Austin and company.
Two weeks ago in Minnesota, with Ansah and Ngata sharing the field for the first time since Week 2, Detroit held its division rival to 16 points in an overtime victory. Then, against Jacksonville on Sunday, the defense carried the team, generating three turnovers, including a pick-six, while the offense uncharacteristically sputtered for three quarters.
It’s a small sample, but things appear to be trending in the right direction. The pass rush has been more impactful, third down and red zone efficiency are much improved, and both opponents struggled to get much going on the ground.
And things appear on the verge of getting even better. Levy is practicing and nearing a return. The anchor of the defense from 2013-14, it remains to be seen what he has to offer, but even if he’s only 75 percent of the player he was during that stretch, it would be an improvement on what the Lions have been getting from their current crop of linebackers.
If this turnaround from the defense feels familiar, that’s because it’s similar to last year. After losing Ndamukong Suh in free agency and Levy to a hip injury, the Lions floundered in the first half. But the group figured it out down the stretch and was a significant part of the reason the team went 6-2 down the stretch.
No one is expecting dominance from this defense, but average would be good. That might be all it takes to win the NFC North.