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Lions have a tall order facing Colts' 'super strong defense'

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

After climbing back to .500, the Detroit Lions will look to do something they haven't accomplished under coach Matt Patricia -- win three straight games in a season. 

But unlike last week, when the defense shouldered the heavier responsibility of finding a way to slow down the Atlanta Falcons' high-octane offense, this chances of success this week will hinge on the offense's ability to poke holes in the stout defense played by the Indianapolis Colts.

DeForest Buckner

Since Matt Eberflus took over as defensive coordinator in 2018, points have been tough to come by against the Colts. And with some key offseason additions, the group has been at its best in 2020, holding opponents to 288.0 yards and 19.2 points through six games. 

“I mean, super strong defense that we’re facing this week," Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "I think number one, they’re very well coached. I think that’s where it starts. You can see all the yards are hard-earned on tape. As you watch, you don’t see guys running free. You don’t see busts in the coverage, those types of things. You see players in the gaps they’re supposed to be in. You see the coverage where the guys are supposed to be. You’re going to have to do a great job. You’re going to have to earn it this week."

As with all great defenses, it stars up front. That's where the team made two significant additions, trading for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and signing defensive end Justin Houston.

"I would say one of the things coach Eberflus has done a great job of is really allowing that defensive line to just get after it, both in the run game and the pass game," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "I think Buckner was a phenomenal pickup for them, I think Houston is a great player, and I really think it's elevated the level of the guys across the board."

The Colts paid a steep price to acquire Buckner, sending the San Francisco 49ers the No. 13 pick in the draft for the second-team All-Pro. But the bold move has proved to be the right one as he's setting the tone for the Colts with 22 quarterback pressures and 2.5 sacks.

"I think one of the things that's so unique about Buckner is just his length and his ability to get off the ball," Patricia said. "You're just not used to guys that long. ... He's usually got his hand in behind the guard's shoulder pad and he's kinda ripping through there before you even get into a pass set."

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On the back end, the Colts play a lot of zone. Eberflus' scheme has evolved this season, moving away from a previous reliance on Cover-2 looks and incorporating a greater mix of Cover-3 and Cover-4 to keep opposing pass games off balance. 

And just like up front, a couple new pieces are playing key roles with free-agent addition Xavier Rhodes and rookie safety Julian Blackmon in the back end. 

With all the pieces working together, the Colts led the NFL with 10 interceptions and have kept big passing plays to a minimum, allowing 17 completions longer than 20 yards and only one gain of 40 or more. 

"I think they’ve just got good speed back there," Patricia said. "I think they’re taking away the intermediate (routes) with the depth of their linebackers and the drops, and they’re rallying and tackling. And I think one of the things that’s happening is that you see a lot of their defensive production really go up in the second half of the game. Their yardage goes down, the sacks go up, the INTs go up. I think at that point, certainly complementary football, which this team is doing a good job of. The balls are trying to go farther downfield and the pass-rush is just getting there. I think those guys up front, when they can pin their ears back and go, I think they’re pretty dangerous."

That was certainly the case in their last game, when the Colts uncharacteristically allowed 21 quick points to the Bengals before clamping down and rallying for a 31-27 victory. 

So yeah, it's going to be a big challenge for a Lions offense that struggled to move the ball efficiently against one of the worst defenses in football a week ago, needing a last-second touchdown to get to 23 against the Falcons. 

But if the Lions can play smart and efficient, avoid the big mistake and continue to get improved production from the defense, maybe they can finally secure that elusive three-game winning streak for Patricia.