Detroit Lions may have the NFL’s next great defense

Matthew Stafford is the highest player in NFL history, but it's the Lions defense that has led the way to a 3-1 start. Is this defense for real?

The Detroit Lions are 3-1 through four weeks of the 2017 NFL season and just one foot away from being undefeated. In previous years, you might expect that they’ve been able to attain this early success thanks to Matthew Stafford. The Lions live and die with his ability to carry the load on his shoulders; they go as he goes. You might not think that Detroit’s defense would have much to do with the success.

Stafford has been playing well, but it has actually been the Lions D that has sparked a 3-1 start to the season. Stafford was quick to credit his defense after a 14-7 win in Minnesota on Sunday: “I think as a defense, we’re playing great. As a special teams, we’re playing really well. On offense we gotta get it going a little bit.”

The Lions’ play has backed up Stafford’s statement. When the Lions have needed a spark, the defense has provided it. A pick six against the Cardinals secured a fourth quarter comeback win in Week 1. A five-sack performance kept the Giants from ever getting into an offensive rhythm in Week 2. In Week 3, three interceptions of reigning MVP Matt Ryan and two forced punts in the Falcons’ last two offensive possessions gave Stafford & Co. three opportunities to complete a come-from-behind win. Unfortunately for Detroit, the offense could not reward the late game defensive efforts. In Week 4, the Lions held the Vikings scoreless in the second half to preserve a seven-point lead and bring home the victory in Minnesota.

Detroit’s defense has made plays when it has needed to, but are they really made to last? If so, what have they done to create this suddenly-talented

What’s working?

Even to the layman’s eye, it’s obvious how the defense has stepped up in crucial moments of games, but how good has this defense really been? Through four weeks, the Lions are allowing only 17.5 points per game. That’s good for fourth-best in the NFL. The run defense has been a strength for Detroit, holding opponents to 86.3 yards per game, ranking the Lions eighth in the league. The pass defense, however, has been vulnerable at times, as the Lions’s aerial D are 21st in the league giving up 236.3 yards per game. Despite the yards allowed through the air, Detroit has thrived in the turnover department. Tied with Baltimore, the Lions have the most takeaways in the NFL with 11 total turnovers forced. The seven interceptions are second-most in the NFL while four fumble recoveries ties Detroit for fourth best.

What do all of these numbers show exactly? They speak to the approach the Lions are taking on defense. Last year, Detroit’s defense forced 14 total turnovers – good for fourth-worst in the NFL. That’s not a pretty statistic. This year, they already have 11 takeaways through four games. This offseason, the Lions focused heavily on forcing turnovers, whether it be strip-fumbles on tackles or taking chances in pass defense. So far, that approach has worked almost to perfection. So, just how are they doing that exactly?

Teryl Austin’s magic

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is highly respected around the NFL for his coaching abilities, having been interviewed by nine teams for head coaching opportunities in the last three years. The success of the Detroit defense starts with Austin. His ability to make the most out of the skills each player possesses is his strength. While some coaches may ask their players to fit certain schemes, Austin makes schemes to fit his players.

The Lions use a 4-3 defensive base alignment. It is a basic formation, but the way Austin uses it is where the defensive success comes from. Austin is always throwing different packages onto the field and showing different blitzes and coverages. Sometimes, he’ll use three safeties at the same time. Sometimes he’ll place a safety in the outside linebacker slot. He sends defensive lineman into passing zones and frequently throws safety blitzes into the mix. Perhaps his best attribute is disguising what the defense does once everyone is lined up on the field.

Take a look at the play above. The Lions show nine players in the box, seemingly attempting to put pressure on Matt Ryan with a blitz of some sort. However, the Lions don’t even bring one blitzer as they only rush four linemen. They instead drop seven players into coverage. Matt Ryan looks out of sorts from the beginning of the play. Maybe he was expecting more pressure with the nine players in the box pre-snap. He then makes a short, errant pass that gets deflected and ends up in the hands of Lions cornerback Darius Slay.

Take a look at another disguise from Austin’s defense. There’s nothing special with the formation; a basic 4-3 package. However, the Lions show blitz off of the snap. All three linebackers lunge towards the line of scrimmage before both Tahir Whitehead and Jarrad Davis back off into a zone coverage. From Manning’s viewpoint, it would appear that the blitz is on and that tight end Evan Engram should run free through the middle of the field, with no linebacker help. However, the late linebacker coverage drop forces Eli Manning to alter his pass, throwing it slightly behind Engram, and leading to a deflected interception for Tahir Whitehead.

Who are the playmakers?

There are a lot of names on the Lions defense that don’t (yet) have League-wide recognition. Though Teryl Austin has done well to create a defense where every player is playing at or near his highest level, a few players have stood out above the rest.

Darius Slay

Darius Slay is the Lions’ top cover cornerback, and spends most of his time shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver. Through four games, Slay boasts 15 tackles, seven pass deflections, and two interceptions. His seven pass deflections are good for second in the NFL. Slay thrives in late game situations as you will see in the video below:

Glover Quin

Glover Quin acts as the on field coach for the defense as Teryl Austin has given him the power to make defensive audibles as he sees fit. Through four games, he has recorded 23 total tackles, three pass deflections, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. His versatility and veteran leadership lead the Lions defense.

Ezekiel Ansah and Anthony Zettel

The two edge rushers have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks in 2017 with a combined seven sacks. If you watched the Monday Night game between the Lions and Giants in Week 2, you probably heard Ezekiel Ansah’s name often. That’s because he recorded three sacks on Eli Manning, showing just how dominant he can be when healthy. A Pro Bowl selection in 2015, Ansah looks as though he has regained his form after an injury-riddled 2016 season.

Anthony Zettel is the surprise new playmaker on the defense. A sixth round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Zettel has bursted onto the scene in his second season with four sacks through four games, tying him for sixth-most in the NFL. The Lions came into the season with a gaping hole at the defensive end position opposite of Ansah, and Zettel has run away with an opportunity to claim his spot as an everyday starter.

Is the defense for real?

The season is only one-quarter of the way over, and there is a lot of football left to play. The Lions defense has looked elite through four games, but can they keep the performance going for the remainder of the season? With Teryl Austin as defensive coordinator and a defense comprising both of young talent and veteran leadership, there is a lot of promise.

We will find out soon enough how good this defense really is, as the next four games see Detroit taking on the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Green Bay Packers. That is a tough quartet for any defense in the NFL. However, if the Detroit Lions defense can hold their own over the next four games, there isn’t much else that will be able to shake them.

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