Before the start of the 2016 season, there were rumblings amongst fans that the Detroit Lions defense could potentially be one of the league’s better units. The return of a healthy LB DeAndre Levy, a burgeoning DE Ziggy Ansah, and a highly regarded rookie defensive tackle (A’Shawn Robinson), all figured to supply the Lions with just enough juice to find some of that 2014 defensive magic.
To the date, the Teryl Austin led defense has been anything but spectacular. Levy has played in one game, the injury-plagued Ansah hasn’t recorded a sack and Robinson has had a typical up-and-down rookie campaign. Certain players who were expected to step up their game have not, such as DE Devin Taylor, CB Nevin Lawson, or any strong safety. To make matters worse, include injuries to CB Darius Slay, DT Haloti Ngata and just about the entire LB core not named Tahir Whitehead, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Here are some stats to put into perspective how well the defense is playing:
- 23rd in Yards per game allowed: 366.3-yards
- 26th in 1st-downs allowed per game: 21.8 first-downs
- 31st in 3rd-down percentage: 49-percent
- 31st in takeaways: 7-turnovers
- 32nd in opposing QB rating: Averaging a rating of 112.4
Despite those ugly metrics, the Lions have still been able to clamp down when it comes to scoring defense. They are ranked 14th in points per game, allowing an average of 22.3-points in their nine outings. Important to note, the Lions have not faced many elite offenses either. The last three of four games have been against a bottom-three offense(YPG) in the league.
Despite all the negativity I have just spewed, the bye week has somewhat rejuvenated the Lions. All 53-active players participated at practice in some capacity on Thursday–that includes Levy, Slay, Ansah, and Ngata. You could argue those four aforementioned players are the most important defensive cogs on the field. I’m sure Glover Quin would have something to say about that statement, but for the sake of the argument, we’ll let that one go for now.
Now Levy is still on the outside looking in when it comes to suiting up this week, but his return should not be far off. The outside linebacker position has been a revolving door all season for the Lions. It has consistently been a huge liability in the run game and in coverage no matter who has been plugged in. Whitehead, being the most athletic of the bunch, has allowed 50-recpetions for 461-yards and five touchdowns. Hopefully, an elite cover backer like Levy can help take that burden off of Whitehead’s shoulders.
Putting an 80% effective Levy in that role should greatly improve the defense as a whole.
— DetroitSportsNation (@detsportsnation) October 21, 2016
Also starting to regain form is Ziggy Ansah. Suffering a high ankle sprain back in week-2, you would expect him to now be close to full health. Even though he has not put up the flashy sack numbers, he has become more productive the past couple weeks.
“Ziggy made a lot of plays, outside of even the sacks that everybody kind of anticipates and expects him to get,” head coach Jim Caldwell said. “He gets downfield, makes tackles on screens and other big-man hits that are valuable to us. But, I do think overall we’re just getting a great effort out of our guys.”
Detroit has still been able to generate pressure at times despite Ansah not being 100%. They have recorded 20-sacks on the year which puts them at 16th most in the NFL. Of those 20-sacks, preseason dark horse Kerry Hyder has accumulated 7.0-sacks in his expanded role. He has been what many expected Devin Taylor to be. If Ansah can return to his old ways anytime soon, the Lions will have a very formidable duo.
Perhaps the most unheralded player in the Lions front seven is the suspended Armonty Bryant. He has two more games until he can return. After being picked up off waivers, Bryant recorded three sacks in the four games he played for Detroit–a catalyst for a struggling defensive line. With the defensive tackle group having difficulties getting pressure on obvious passing downs, the versatile Bryant was able to come into that role and create havoc up the middle. Hyder has also moved inside on occasion, but Bryant’s return will be a welcomed addition.
— Logan Lamorandier (@LLamorandier) November 1, 2016
Lastly, Darius Slay should also be good-to-go after pulling a hamstring against the Washington Redskins. You can never have enough cover-men in this league. To help reinforce a floundering secondary, GM Bob Quinn made a trade for one of Slay’s former All-American college teammates, Johnthan Banks. He may not be anything special, but he can bring a tall, ball-hawking element to a defense that is lacking in both departments. Banks is a wildcard, but a skilled one at that.
There isn’t a lot of room to get worse if you are the Lions defense, but key pieces are returning that could catapult the Lions defense into at least a slightly above average range. That may be all that is needed for a respectable offense (aka Matthew Stafford) to carry the rest of the team deep into the playoffs.