Allen Park — Hope is not a strategy. So sayeth Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell. Faith, on the other hand, is a perfectly acceptable reason to believe his team’s run defense will get back on track after getting chewed up and spit out by the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears the past two weeks.
Here’s the good news: The Lions won both games, unquestionably the only statistic that truly matters. But the statistics within each contest typically portend to the result, and history shows the Lions’ current formula isn’t sustainable.
In the Super Bowl era, only nine teams have won back-to-back games where they allowed their opponents to rush for more than 200 yards. No team has ever emerged victorious in three straight conceding that much success on the ground.
Oddly enough, the Browns and Bears did it in similar fashion. Both relied on tandem backfields, consisting of a power back and speedy complement, and bolstered their attacks with mobile quarterbacks. DeShone Kizer and Mitch Trubisky each racked up at least 53 yards on a combination of designed carries and scrambles.
Caldwell noted some consistencies in the team’s breakdowns.
“Same thing will happen to you when you tackle well, you don’t fit the run well,” Caldwell said. “That’s probably the best way I can break it down, we just did not do those things well and when that happens you’re going to get gashed.
“But, just like anything else, I kind of look to see if (we can) get us back to where we were playing well,” Caldwell said. “We are capable of doing that, we’ve done it in the recent past and we got to do it this week.”
Caldwell isn’t wrong. The Lions were as tough as any team to run against early in the season. After five games, the team ranked in the top-five in both rushing yards allowed per game and per carry. The Lions were coming off a dominant outing against the Carolina Panthers, limiting them to 28 yards, the team’s lowest output in five years.
But things have crumbled in recent weeks, appearing to correlate with a pair of significant injuries up front. In that Week 5 game against Carolina, the Lions lost defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to a season-ending bicep tear.
The next week, the New Orleans Saints romped for 193 yards in a 52-38 thumping, a game they led 45-10 in the third quarter.
And the past two weeks, when Cleveland and Chicago have run roughshod over Detroit’s front seven, defensive end Ziggy Ansah has been sidelined with a back injury.
Say what you want about Ansah’s overall performance this season — it’s unquestionably been disappointing from a pass-rush perspective — but he’s still been an above-average run defender, routinely setting a stout edge, and relying on his athleticism to counter the effectiveness of misdirection.
The Lions couldn’t find the right mix to fix what ailed them against Cleveland this past weekend in Chicago. The tried something a bit different, leaning heavily on the top of the team’s defensive line rotation. A’Shawn Robinson, Anthony Zettel, Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington all played a season-high percentage of defensive snaps in the victory, but did little to slow down running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, who combined to average better than seven yards per carry.
So what gives Caldwell confidence the Lions will get it corrected this week, with Minnesota coming to town?
Earlier this season, the Vikings were running efficiently on the Lions before rookie rusher Dalvin Cook blew out his ACL early in the second half. The group has been inconsistent since the loss of Cook, but have still managed to grind out more than 150 yards on the ground three times in six games.
“I have faith,” Caldwell said. “We’ve done it before, it’s not like it’s something that’s never been done.”
Respectfully, faith isn’t enough in this instance. Caldwell knows as well as anyone, past performance in the NFL is not an indicator of future success.
After the Bears game, each Lions defender offered a different answer as to why things weren’t working like they had earlier in the year, a reminder that it’s not one thing, but many small issues contributing to the larger problem. If the Lions want to beat the Vikings, if they want to stay in the NFC North race, they have to correct them, piece by broken piece.
Unfortunately, on a short week, they’ve only got three days to do it.