Justin Rogers of The Detroit News addresses five critical questions for the Lions’ defense.
Can a better blitz help the pass rush?
With the lack of a consistent pass rush the past two years, the Lions have leaned heavily on the blitz, finishing in the top 10, by percentage, each season. But last year, they were one of the NFL’s least effective at generating pressure when bringing an extra rusher.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has some developing and new weapons to deploy in this area. Expect to see a healthy dose of heat coming from Miles Killebrew, Jarrad Davis and whoever is manning the nickel spot. But if the Lions can’t take away the quarterback’s first read, they’ll continue to struggle to get home on these plays.
Will the defense be better on third down?
How a defense performs on third down has a lot to do with how it performs on first and second down. If your opponent is consistently operating out of third-and-short situations, well, the success rate isn’t going to look pretty.
Detroit’s defense got nickel and dimed to death last year, giving up an average of 36 yards every possession. Only Washington and New Orleans were worse. Not surprisingly, all three ranked in the bottom-five in third-down conversion percentage allowed.
Will the nickel spot still be a problem?
Based on playing time in the third preseason game, Quandre Diggs managed to hold on to the nickelback job. But with the way he performed in that game, the leash can’t be too long.
Diggs plays the run and screen passes well, plus he’s a decent blitzer, but he’s coming off a nightmare season in coverage. The Lions brought in D.J. Hayden to push for the job, and after a strong preseason with a couple pass breakups, a shake-up in the secondary remains a realistic option if Diggs struggles to start the year.
Where will the turnovers come from?
Few stats matter more than turnovers and the Lions simply haven’t generated enough, averaging 16 takeways the past two years. Cornerback Darius Slay, the most talented player in the secondary, had two game-sealing interceptions last year, but they were his only picks. Nevin Lawson, is looking for the first interception of his career entering his fourth season.
And where have the fumbles been? Sure, there’s an element of luck, but Detroit simply isn’t proficient in stripping the ball. The team has finished with fewer than 10 recoveries each of Jim Caldwell’s three seasons as coach. Kansas City led the league with 15 in 2016 and 16 teams recorded double-digits. Detroit finished with four.
Is Jarrad Davis ready?
Davis is a coach’s dream. The rookie linebacker enters the NFL with a professional approach, a genuine passion for the game and is intrinsically motivated to get better through every aspect of his job. First-year players don’t typically lead, but Davis is a natural fit for command.
Plus, the physical gifts are tremendous. He has plenty of speed and athleticism and hits like a mid-size truck. But a lot is being put on his plate, having to start at middle linebacker from Day 1. Tom Brady showed how a good quarterback will be able to take advantage of Davis’ inexperience.
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