The Detroit Lions defense has looked like a world beater through the first six weeks of the season.
In the last six, he was defeated.
And with five games remaining before the NFL playoffs, they’re trying to find their defensive footing during a critical period that could set them up for postseason failure or ultimate success. They are confident that the real ones will come out.
“I think when you look at it collectively, you look at our whole defense, it’s really the same core that’s been here,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said Thursday. “And you look at us last year at this time, we weren’t a good defense. I think we were ranked last in a lot of different categories. And now you look at it with really the same core, I mean these guys have improved. That’s something I don’t think people really pay attention to.
Statistically, the Lions finished with the worst defense in the NFL last season, but they were a different unit in the second half of the year when they allowed 20.2 points during a 10-game stretch that saw them go 8-2 and nearly make the playoffs.
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This year the scenario has reversed. The Lions ranked in the top 10 in most key defensive categories — total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and third down percentage — through the first six weeks of the season, but those numbers have collapsed in recent weeks.
They have allowed an average of 28.8 points in their last six games, 10 more than they allowed in the first six games of the year, and 30.3 points in their four games since the bye. They fell from second to 14th in total defense, and while they still have one of the best run-stopping units in the NFL, they’re second-worst in the red zone and have more home runs than just six others the team.
“When we do things right, we’re pretty damn good,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “But we also know that when we’re on defense, everybody has to do their job. … When a guy misses an assignment or basically doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, it puts a huge strain on our guys, it just does. But we can and we did, we did. We showed it.”
Campbell insisted he still has faith in a unit strained by injuries in some spots but showing growth in its young core in others.
The Lions lost two of the three key defensive backs they signed in free agency to injury earlier in the year, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Mosley, and have been unable to plug the leaks that have occurred in their absence. The starting cornerbacks, Cam Sutton and Jerry Jacobs, have allowed opposing passer grades of 92 or worse, according to Pro Football Reference, and the team is considering changes in its secondary, including giving Ifeatu Melifonwu more time at safety.
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The Lions will also be without top linebacker Alim McNeil for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears, leaving their already inconsistent pass rush even more depleted.
But they got solid play from their backcourt team. Rookies Jack Campbell and Brian Branch are rising playmakers. And McNeil, before his injury, and second-year defensive end Aiden Hutchinson were threats up front, even without a huge number of sacks.
“Look, everybody wants to be the No. 1 defense. Hell, I want to be the No. 1 defense,” Glenn said. “But guys have to develop, and guys have developed and look at where they’ve placed themselves.”
At 9-3, the Lions are tied for the second-best record in the NFL and are in good shape to win their division and host their first playoff game in 30 years.
Linebacker Alex Anzalone said he wasn’t discouraged by the defense’s recent retreat, which he said was due in part to “extenuating circumstances.”
The Lions defeated the Bears 31-26 in their first meeting of the season when the offense lost four turnovers and the defense limited the Bears to 10 points off those mistakes. They had three more fumbles and failed on a fourth down conversion attempt deep in their own territory the following week in a loss to the Green Bay Packers when the Packers returned a Jared Goff fumble for a touchdown.
And last week, the Lions raced to a 21-0 lead against the New Orleans Saints, then appeared to be in control in the second half of a 33-28 win.
“Yeah, we’ve got to get back on track as far as just quality defense,” Anzalone said. “Just from a point-limiting standpoint, that means leaving the field on third down and in the red zone. In my opinion, those are really the two it comes down to, just forcing field goals if they get there and getting off the field on third down.”
The Lions have struggled against some of the best running backs they have faced this season, which is not uncommon in the NFL. Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert paced the Lions with a combined 680 yards passing and seven touchdowns, and Justin Fields ran for 104 yards, his third 100-yard game against the Lions since the start of last season.
Stopping Fields on Sunday will be key to getting the defense back on track, and Dan Campbell said the unit is “highly motivated” to show his recent play is more of an anomaly than a regression to his true self.
“We have professionals here and they are hard workers and they want to clean up these little issues, but I keep coming back to it,” Campbell said. “Last week, we played really well on first down, second down. Third down should be our money. I mean we had five of those third-and-longs, third-and-9 plus. We have to get off the field. No way. And these are our own mistakes. And I would say that this is not characteristic of us. So, I am fully confident that we will clear them.
Next up: Bears
Matches: Lions (9-3) at Chicago (4-8).
Kickoff: 13:00 Sunday; Solder Field, Chicago.
TV/Radio: fox; WXYT-FM (97.1).
row: Lions of 3.