One of the most common narratives emerging out of the 2015 Detroit Lions off-season is that the defense will be worse in 2015 than it was in 2014. This is a seemingly logical conclusion to draw in light of the Lions losing the services of Ndamukong Suh. This reasoning is inherently flawed, presumptive and a bit lazy.
In a recent town hall meeting, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin echoed this sentiment when he stated his plan was for the Lions to be even better on defense in 2015 than they were a year prior. I believe in Austin’s vision for the 2015 Lions defense and will post a series of articles chronicling why the unit will be improved in 2015. Up first is defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
The ‘Austinian’ Reign Continues
The Lions defense will be even better in 2015 in large part because it retained the services of one of the most brilliant defensive minds in football – Teryl Austin. A relatively unknown commodity prior to the 2014 season, Austin quickly emerged as a gravitating figure within the Lions organization. Gone were the passive coverage principles that had Lions corners playing 10-15 years away from receivers during the Schwartz era. In their stead was the introduction of press coverage concepts that immediately instilled a long absent level of toughness along the perimeter of the team’s defense.
At the line of scrimmage, defensive tackles were indoctrinated with more sound precepts of run stopping. Under Schwartz, interior defensive linemen were allowed to rush the quarterback with reckless abandon. Quite often, opposing teams would invite Suh and Fairley to blindly charge up-field, and then trap them in the backfield while opposing runners ran right past them. Under Austin, defensive linemen were charged with being the first line of defense against the run. That meant defensive ends were responsible for setting edges on the perimeter of the line, allowing teammates to rally around opposing ball carriers. It also required interior defensive linemen to hold the point of attack, maintain gap discipline and on occasion, included two-gapping.
One reason Teryl Austin became a finalist for a head coaching position despite only having one year of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator is because NFL execs were aware of how much Austin accomplished without having all the requisite personnel to run his scheme. Under Austin, “the Lions finished the year as one of only ten teams in league history to hold opponents under 70 rushing yards per game, while tying an NFL record by limiting the opposition to fewer than 100 yards on the ground in 14 outings.” Additionally, the team finished eighth in the league with 42 total sacks and tied for third in total interceptions with 20. Despite tremendous success in 2014, there’s room for improvement this coming season. With another year in Austin’s system and the addition/return of a true nickel corner and an LEO, Lions fans should beam with optimism.
One’s Reach Should Exceed Their Grasp — Robert Browning
When Browning penned these words in the 1800s, he was issuing a symbolic challenge for a person to be greater than the sum of their parts. While Ndamukong Suh became one of the NFL’s premier defensive tackles, he was just another good player from the standpoint that he never became a galvanizing leader who held a transformative impact on specific teammates like Nick Fairley, or over the defense in general.
|Year||Total Defense||Run Defense||Scoring Defense|
***All data supplied by NFL GSIS***
The chart above lists the defense’s performance starting with 2010, Suh’s first year with the Lions. As illustrated by the numbers above the Lions NEVER ranked fifth or better in any of the three seminal defensive categories (i.e., total yards, rushing yards and points allowed) prior to Austin’s arrival. Take 2010 for example. Suh registered the highest number of combined tackles (66) and sacks (10) of his career. Despite his play, the Lions posted a 6-10 record, while the defense ranked a pedestrian 21st overall. In 2011, he had one of the least statistically productive seasons of his career registering only 49 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks. The Lions ranked 23rd in total, rushing and scoring defense that year. Despite uninspired defensive play the Lions managed ten wins and earned a playoff berth fueled by the sole dominant season of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s career.
When Suh stepped on Aaron Rodgers and the Lions faced the prospect of entering the playoffs without his services Coach Caldwell responded as thus:
“You don’t get a ranking of number one and two in the league, whatever we are, by smoke and mirrors,” Caldwell said. “One game doesn’t just completely destroy exactly what you’ve built up and what you’re capable of doing.”
The key sentiments in Caldwell’s comments were the fact that one instance doesn’t destroy what’s been built. Because the Lions so grossly underachieved on defense during the Schwartz era it’s become a common belief that the Lions are bereft of talent on the defensive side of the ball. The reality is the Lions possess one of the most talented defenses in the entire NFL. Contrary to popular belief, the Lions didn’t lose their best player to Miami. He’s still safely a member of the Lions roster and poised to help the second-ranked overall defense from 2014 make a jump to first overall in 2015. In part two of this series, we’ll unveil the identity of the Lions’ best defensive player and explore how the defense will be even better in Suh’s absence.