Niyo: Lions' defense is a stunning mess at every level

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Trey Flowers is relatively new here, so maybe he’s the wrong guy to ask.

A three-game losing streak? In his first four seasons in the NFL, Flowers never suffered more than two consecutive defeats with the New England Patriots.

But now he’s a Lion, and he’s in the middle of something worse, so the question is unavoidable.

Vikings' Stefon Diggs gets ahead of Lions' Darius Slay for a completion in the second quarter.

To Flowers’ credit, he’s always accountable and available after games. Sunday was no different, after the Lions dropped a third straight game in rather humbling fashion, getting picked apart by former Michigan State standout Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings in a 42-30 loss.

Yet when asked to pinpoint what’s wrong with the Lions’ defense right now, Flowers didn’t know where to begin, really.

“We just gotta work harder,” he said. “I wish I could tell you one key thing.”

But it’s more than that, obviously. And this loss to the Vikings only highlighted just how much work there is to do for a defense that ranks among the league’s worst six games into the Lions’ season.

Head coach Matt Patricia called Sunday “a disappointing day for all of us.” But it was his defense  and this is his defense, in principle and in practice  that was most to blame for letting down the crowd of 60,314 at Ford Field.

The 503 yards for the Vikings marked their highest single-game total since 2014, and the fourth-best output in a decade. For the Lions, it’s the most yardage allowed in a loss since that disastrous regular-season finale at Lambeau Field in 2011. And to find a three-game stretch where the defense was gashed quite like this  allowing 463 yards per contest as the Lions tumbled into last place in the NFC North  you have to go all the way back to the winless 2008 campaign in Detroit.

"They had their way with us," linebacker Devon Kennard said. "It’s very frustrating, disappointing  and nobody is coming to save us. We have to bond together on defense, figure this thing out and find ways to stop these offenses.”

Stretch of struggles

It’d help to face some offenses that don’t look like these last few on the schedule, quite frankly. Kansas City, Green Bay and Minnesota all look like playoff teams at this point. And at least the schedule looks ready to cooperate, with the New York Giants and a rookie quarterback headed to town next weekend, followed by a West Coast trip to face Oakland.

But the Lions haven’t left themselves any room for error now with this three-game skid. Nor can they expect to make any kind of playoff push in the second half of the regular season playing defense they way they are right now.

Minnesota piled up 166 rushing yards, six days after the Lions gave up 170 to the Packers. And it wasn’t just Dalvin Cook doing his thing in this one, though there aren’t many better in the league right now than him.

No, it was pretty much across the board, as the Vikings' offensive line asserted itself and the Lions' defenders made things worse with some poor technique and shoddy tackling.

Minnesota put together a 15-play, 97-yard drive that ate up nearly half of the second quarter, along with much of the crowd's spirit. And when the Vikings weren't breaking off big chunks of the chain on first or second down, they were torturing the Lions' secondary with play-action passes. Cousins finished the game with 337 yards and four touchdowns, and it sounded like it felt about as easy as it looked.

“Tossing the ball around the yard, guys making plays," said Cousins, who wasn't sacked once all day. "You pretty much know you’ve got what you want.”

Take that final play of the third quarter, when the Vikings faced third-and-1 near midfield. A quick-hit handoff to C.J. Ham  a fullback with 13 carries for 21 yards in two-plus NFL seasons  went for a 9-yard gain. 

So when Kennard called Sunday’s effort against the run “ridiculous,” he was talking about all of it, really.

And he’s certainly not wrong. Not when you consider what was expected of this group coming into the season.

No excuses

Last year, after Damon “Snacks” Harrison was acquired at the deadline, the Lions’ run defense was among the league’s best, holding six of their final eight opponents under 100 yards on the ground.

But they’ve allowed 100-plus yards to all six teams they’ve faced this season. And the Lions now rank 31st in the NFL in total defense, with problems surfacing at every level. They’re in the bottom five against the run and the pass, and with only 10 sacks in six games, only four teams have recorded fewer. (Those four teams, by the way, have combined for just two wins.)

So whether it’s the scheme or the talent, the play-calling or the execution, the bottom line is it’s nowhere near acceptable, especially given all that Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn have done to overhaul this defense.

The Lions lured Flowers to Detroit with a $90 million contract this offseason  the biggest deal any team handed out in free agency  and the return on that investment hasn’t been what anyone expected.

He missed a good portion of the offseason rehabbing after shoulder surgery and the Lions kept him out of any preseason games. So a slow start out of the gate wasn’t a huge surprise. But through six games, Flowers has just one sack on an end-of-half play by the Eagles’ Carson Wentz in Week 3.

The other big-ticket item up front  Harrison, the run-stuffing tackle who got the contract extension he sought in late August  hasn’t made a lot of waves, either.

And with injuries piling up around them, that’s a problem. Harrison left Sunday’s game briefly with a groin injury but gamely returned  so did linebacker Jarrad Davis  and the Lions are still waiting on key pieces in Mike Daniels and Da’Shawn Hand up front. Losing Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay to an aggravated hamstring injury Sunday didn’t help matters.

“That’s not a good thing,” Kennard said of the injuries. “But there’s no excuse. We’ve got a ton of talent on our defense.”

Whatever they’ve got, it’s time to show it.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo