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Lions defense practices safety first and it’s working

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Sunday’s performance in New Orleans was an exclamation point, but Detroit’s defense has been slowly turning around its season for more than a month. With the 28-13 victory, the Lions haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than 20 the past six games.

The success of the defense is a shared accomplishment, between the 11 players on the field and the play-calling of coordinator Teryl Austin. But it has not been a coincidence this stretch has coincided with the increased usage of a personnel grouping Detroit has successfully deployed.

It’s commonly known as big nickel.

For those who don’t know, a nickel package is when a team puts five defensive backs on the field. But with the Lions, instead of relying exclusively on a nickel cornerback, the team has been leaning heavily on three safeties.

Glover Quin is the given in the equation. The veteran free safety is the only Lions defender who hasn’t missed a snap this season.

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Then there’s Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush, who had a fierce training camp battle, but both earned roles, according to Austin, before the start of the season.

Wilson is the starting strong safety, and when healthy, he’s on the field between 70-80 percent of snaps. And Bush’s role has been expanding in recent weeks. He’s played between 44-68 percent during this six-game stretch.

Additionally, Detroit has been working rookie Miles Killebrew into the mix, particularly in third-down situations.

It’s all provided a big boost to the passing defense, which has held six opponents to five touchdowns.

The cherry on top has been the turnovers. The four safeties have been responsible for seven during the stretch.

“Glover has always been a key for us back there,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “He does a tremendous job. I think most of you guys heard me speak of him (Sunday), but Tavon also is coming along and made a lot of good plays for us. He’s tackled well, he plays like a veteran, he communicates like a veteran.

“Bush has been playing extremely well also. Very active, he almost got his hands on a couple (Sunday). And then obviously Killebrew is a young guy who’s coming along and making progress.”

The big nickel package isn’t new, but it’s become more popular in recent years. The Lions tinkered with it 2014 and 2015, using Isa Abdul-Quddus in the role.

The Lions also see it from opponents. The Saints used it extensively with safeties Kenny Vacarro, Vonn Bell and Jairus Byrd. The trio each played at least 66 of the 70 snaps.

The benefit of having three safeties share the field typically is improved pass-coverage range, compared to playing with three linebackers. In turn, a team doesn’t sacrifice too much size in run support. In Detroit’s case, all four safeties are exceptional tacklers.

“I’m pretty sure if you look at it, a lot of teams probably run a lot of three-safety because it’s such a passing league,” Quin said during a conference call last week. “Nowadays you can have safeties that can hold up in the run game for as much as teams try to run it, but also give you better coverage underneath as a pass dropper than maybe a linebacker.”

Caldwell made certain to emphasize the use of the personnel grouping might not always be as prominent. The team always will look for the best packages to counter their opponent’s playing style.

“Teryl does a nice job, and our defensive staff, they do a good job of making certain that our guys are in the best possible position,” Caldwell said. “I think more so it’s schematic than anything else, according to what we’re going to face.”

Hypothetically, the Lions could lean more heavily on three linebackers against a team like the Bears, who are coming into town this week. The Bears possess a strong power running game with rookie Jordan Howard, but an underperforming aerial attack that’s lost its top two quarterbacks to injury and best receiver to a suspension.

Plus, if linebacker DeAndre Levy clears his final hurdles with his rehab and is cleared to return, the Lions would look to immediately work him into the mix.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

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