Where We Stand Wednesdays: Detroit Lions Defense Edition


The Detroit Lions are sandwiched between a loss in San Diego last week and favorable upcoming matchup against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. This lull in action affords us an opportunity to assess where the team stands. This week we’ll focus on defense.

Oct 26, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Tyrunn Walker (75) tackles Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans defeated Green Bay 44-23. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’ve probably read multiple articles centered on the Lions’ first game. Those I’ve read typically fall into one of two categories. The first attempts to explain away everything negative that occurred in San Diego. The second ascribes doom and gloom upon the Lions for the rest of the season. As is often the case in life and in football, the truth lays somewhere between those extremes.

Take the defensive line for example. Some left the game in San Diego with the thought the defensive front ‘gave the game away.’ The truth is that’s only partially true.

For the record the Detroit Lions front four had a solid outing in San Diego, particularly at the onset of the contest.

While Aaron Donald stole national headlines for his play in week one, it was actually Tyrunn Walker who quietly turned in the week’s best performance for an interior defensive lineman. Walker created pressure on a league best 18.1% of his pass rushing snaps.

For those who used the loss in San Diego as fuel to feed momentum to the notion ‘we should’ve kept our own free agents’ know that notorious player who went to Miami finished in 6th place on this list creating pressure on only 8.3% of his snaps. Coincidentally, the Lions are paying Walker $1.75M this season. That former Lion is costing the Dolphins in excess of 114M over the next 6 years.

Meanwhile, Haloti Ngata lived up to his billing as noted on Twitter by The Oakland Press’ Paula Pasche:


Despite the double and sometimes triple teams he faced, Ngata finished the game with the 13th best run stop percentage in the league.

Sep 13, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Detroit Lions defensive end Phillip Hunt (58) celebrates after sacking San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (not pictured) with teammate defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) during the first quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The interior of the defensive line was not the only productive part of the defensive line thanks to the team’s starting defensive ends. According to Pro Football Focus, James Jones graded out as the 4th best run stopping 4-3 defensive end in week one. Ziggy Ansah also cracked the top ten on this list.

Speaking of Ansah, he continued to establish himself as one of the most well-rounded defensive ends in the NFL, combining a top 10 run stopping grade with a top 14 pass rush rating.

Where the defensive front failed was at the 2nd level. The Detroit Lions corps of linebackers, specifically Stephen Tulloch, played poorly in this game. Not only did Tulloch grade out as PFF’s 42nd worst linebacker among 51 qualifiers, he missed three tackles en route to surrendering a league high 92-yards after the catch.

Unfortunately, Tulloch didn’t fare any better in coverage; allowing 9 receptions on 9 targets for 95 yards and a touchdown. Rivers had a 147.7 QB Rating when targeting Tulloch which made the 30-year old linebacker the team’s least productive pass defender.

The Detroit Lions defensive backfield wasn’t able to compensate for Tulloch’s miscues as it faced its own challenges.

Sep 13, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Detroit Lions free safety Glover Quin (27) runs an interception in for a touchdown during the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Slay & Glover Quin made Phillip Rivers pay when he targeted receivers in their zones as each intercepted passes. They also held Rivers to 77.1 & 79.2 quarterback ratings respectively.

Other members of the team’s back seven didn’t fare as well.

For instance, James Ihedigbo missed three tackles and surrendered a 118.8 QB Rating to the Chargers. Unfortunately, Ihedigbo was only one of 6 Lions defenders to capitulate a 100+ QB Rating to Rivers. What makes the prior worse is Mathis fell within a point of being the 7th Lions defender to yield a 100+ rating to the opposing team’s passing offense.

While some blamed players for the defensive letdown in San Diego others ascribed the Chargers’ success to an overly simplistic defensive scheme. The data however does not support this view. According to NFL GSIS the Lions used the 4th most unique set of defensive alignments in the league last Sunday. They also used a heavy rotation of personnel trying to find a grouping that would at least temper San Diego’s scorching passing attack.

Thomas Maney of Pro Football Focus comments on the game as thus: “his [Rivers’] 92.7 accuracy percentage was the highest of any QB on Sunday (85.7 percent when pressured), 32 of his 41 attempts were thrown behind or within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage with his passes travelling less than 4 yards in the air, on average.”

Rivers’ accuracy combined with field temperatures that soared above 100-degrees to create an inhospitable environment for the Lions defense to run, cover and tackle. In my mind, the team’s 2nd half defensive performance supports the theory attrition and fatigue played some role in lessening the effectiveness of the unit.

Sep 21, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (55) during the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Notwithstanding the prior in the cases of Stephen Tulloch, James Ihedigbo and Rashean Mathis questions related to the ravages of age persist. For those players I suspect teams will challenge them regularly to test whether they are still capable of playing at high levels.

However those players respond I am confident the Lions defense will be fine.

Stanley Jean Baptiste & Alex Carter are athletic marvels who could be called into action should Mathis prove unable to continue eluding father time. Last season, Tahir Whitehead filled in admirably for an injured Stephen Tulloch. I’m still not convinced middle linebacker isn’t his best position and feel absolutely confident in his ability to take over for Tulloch should the need arise. Finally, Isa Abdul-Quddus and Isaiah Johnson are young players the Lions handpicked to serve in Ihedigbo’s stead should injury, holdout or ineffectiveness one again force him from the lineup. 

Rest assured Lions fans these aren’t the ‘Same Ole Lions’ who have a void of starter quality depth all along the roster. Quite the opposite, this squad may well be better off starting backups like Whitehead and Abdul-Quddus over Tulloch and Ihedigbo respectively.  

Sep 13, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) reacts after making a first down during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of week one the Lions defense sits dead last in total defense, passing defense, first downs allowed and yardage differential. They were also 29th in scoring defense. The Lions were a proud defensive unit in 2014 and I’d guess there isn’t a single defensive player in the team’s locker room who left San Diego happy about their overall performance. As a point of personal pride I expect each member of the Lions defense to take to the field against the Vikings ‘angry.’

This would not be the week to stand against the Lions defense.

Where do you stand Lions fans? Was last week’s defensive performance an aberration or do you believe it was a foreshadowing of things to come?

Next: Detroit Lions Offensive Player Grades: Week 1

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