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Enter the Lions: Is Detroit’s defense epic or empty?

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Teryl Austin’s unit has kept scores relatively low, but is near the bottom of sacks, first downs, completions—and last in DVOA

Detroit Lions v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

“Each night as the city sleeps/Seconds from annihilation.”

I already wrote in detail this week about the Detroit Lions’ offense, so I wanted to examine the defense because I’ve heard multiple times this year how stingy that unit is.

When I went on the Pack to the Future podcast ahead of the Seattle Seahawks’ game against the Green Bay Packers last month, the hosts discussed how they didn’t expect Green Bay to prevail in the NFC North chase in part because the Lions’ defense was playing “lights out”. When I was examining Detroit’s offensive reputation on Monday, I cited Steven Ruiz’s case that it was the Lions’ stiff defense, not Matthew Stafford’s clutch drives, that had kept so many Detroit games close enough to win at the end. Earlier this week Danny O’Neil on 710 ESPN called the Lions a “very efficient” defense—perhaps he’s thinking of 2014 when they were the third-best defense by DVOA and still had Ndamukong Suh. Or perhaps by efficient he meant that Detroit gives up relatively few points compared to how many yards, completions and first downs it allows (which is, to be fair, in some sense how we value the Seahawks bend-but-don’t-break approach).

But Seattle is considered around here to be having a poor year because it didn’t lead the league in scoring defense. The Seahawks finished third. The Lions were 13th in scoring allowed, at 22.4 points per game, which is okay. But they were 23rd in first downs given up, 26th in yards per play, 29th in expected points added by the defense with negative-134 (Detroit finished negative-12 in scoring differential for the season). The Lions gave up 4.4 yards per rush, which was 20th, and 7.5 yards per pass attempt, ranking 24th. (All stats from Pro-football-reference.com.)

Detroit’s traditional total yards allowed in both passing and rushing were around league average, which also helps alter the perception, but it faced the sixth-fewest drives fewest drives of any team. The Lions gave up the second-most yards per drive, partly because they forced so few turnovers: Of 700 total takeaways in the league this year, Detroit only got 14 of them. The Lions were especially bad against the pass, dead last in opponent completion rate (72.7 percent) and 0.1 percent away from dead last in sack rate (4.5 percent). As a result, they allowed the third-worst ANY/A and the worst opponent passer rating by almost five points (106.5).

More importantly, Detroit got as close as you can probably get to a wire-to-wire worst defense, by DVOA, which is how we usually measure efficiency. The Lions ranked 32nd as early as week 4, were still 32nd in regular and weighted DVOA at the end of the year and, even when Detroit was at its peak during an 8-1 winning stretch from week 5 until week 14 that included eight straight games without giving up more than 20 points, never went higher than 31st in defensive efficiency (for two weeks).

The Lions’ best DVOA placement on defense was 27th, in week 2, but that was before Football Outsiders factored opponent adjustments (Detroit had played two AFC South teams) and their actual rating at that time, 16.8 percent, was already low enough to have ranked last by the end of the year, after most teams settled toward the median. The Lions instead also got worse absolutely, and their final defensive DVOA is six percentage points lower than the next-worst team, the Cleveland Browns—which is a difference roughly equal to the difference between the Browns and the Buffalo Bills a full six spots higher. That separation is nothing historical, and not close to the degree by which the New Orleans Saints were differentiated from the pack in 2015. And yet in a year of unusual parity across DVOA ratings on offense, defense and overall, Detroit’s defense is the most outlying unit in either direction.

That low-scoring streak is surely another reason people think the Lions have a good defense, as Ruiz described at For The Win. They even allowed 17 or fewer points in half their games in 2016. That’s really good: Only the New England Patriots held opponents to figures that low, on average, over the whole season. But as Detroit’s mediocre scoring defense indicates, in the remaining eight games it gave up an average of 29 points (the Lions only reached 30 points twice, so this was not helpful). As a defense they were somehow wire-to-wire terrible and terribly inconsistent.

But they must have given up so few points because they got tighter in the red zone, right?

Turns out Detroit was 30th in the league at preventing touchdowns when opposing offenses reached its 20 yard line, allowing at least six 68 percent of the time (Seattle’s potential divisional round opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, are last at nearly 73 percent). I’ve heard some folks suggest the Lions lost their last three games because of Matthew Stafford’s injured finger. It’s also fair to say it had something to do with Detroit facing three playoff teams in the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. The Lions’ previous 8-1 stretch included just one opponent that made the playoffs—the Houston Texans, who had handed them their one loss in that span. But another reason Detroit lost three in a row was that it was the only team in the NFL during those three weeks to allow touchdowns on 100 percent of its opponents’ red zone visits.

In other words, the Lions don’t do anything to match up well against the Seahawks’ vulnerabilities on offense. I studied Detroit’s win over the New Orleans Saints December 4 for clues how the defense managed to hold Drew Brees and the Saints to 13 points. Brees was on target, completing more than 70 percent of his passes for 7.4 yards per attempt, but climaxed throwing three second-half interceptions while desperate to come back—almost one third of the Lions’ 10 INTs on the year. So I suspect the best formula the Lions can hope for is to get an early lead and set up situational pass rusher Kerry Hyder, Jr., to keep Seattle from scheming methods to eliminate Ziggy Ansah the way most teams have successfully done in 2016.

That was also the game Zach Zenner took over as the lead rusher. But it was Stafford’s 341 yards controlling possession in the second and third quarters, and Golden Tate went wild in a dome with 145 yards on eight catches and one of his four touchdowns on the year. Detroit might have a hard time matching its own offense up well enough to extend much of a lead against the Seahawks defense Saturday, which won’t have to wait for a lead to rush the passer: Nobody ran the ball less in 2016 than the Detroit Lions. And despite the stretch between the Tampa and Green Bay games when Seattle struggled rushing the passer, no team enters the postseason with more sacks than the Seahawks after 10 in their last three games. The Lions tied for 21st in sacks allowed, although their sack rate is better because the passing frequency was so high.

As Mike Payton over at Pride of Detroit observed, Stafford has a 63.5 percent completion rate and 253 yards per game against the Seahawks in three tries, with five touchdowns against six interceptions. Although five of those picks were in his rookie year, in his most recent game on Monday Night Football in Seattle last year Stafford didn’t throw a touchdown or an interception and gained just 203 passing yards on 35 attempts, as the team totaled only 256 yards on offense.

However, just one more yard would have won them that game. The Seahawks had Earl Thomas in those previous games against Stafford, which they won’t this weekend—but they will still have Kam Chancellor.

When I wrote last week about the magical moments that define Seattle’s football team in recent history, I neglected to mention probably my favorite in that timeline. I don’t care what happened afterward with K.J. Wright and the swatted ball, because it doesn’t alter what Chancellor did on that play. People sometimes compare it to Tyrann Mathieu punching the ball away from Jared Cook at the start of 2014. That was an exceptional play that similarly saved a score, but it preserved a 0-0 game in the first quarter with no real stakes for the season. Kam’s forearm thrust was a singular play that directly WON THE GAME, and he did it against a Hall of Fame player, Calvin Johnson, one of the most powerful upper-body offensive skill position players in the league—and Chancellor did it when his 1-2 team absolutely needed it after losing the first two games without him.

Check out Field Gulls’ preview of the game:

Seahawks vs. Lions

Let's get ready for the playoffs! Seahawks vs. Lions!

Posted by Field Gulls: For Seattle Seahawks News and Analysis on Friday, January 6, 2017

Johnson is gone and this play and its result will have no consequence for Saturday’s playoff bout, but it’s worth revisiting any time the Lions come into contact with Seattle, just for fun because it’s one of the greatest individual football efforts of all time—and for right now because it’s a concrete display, rather than a faithful sentiment, how the Seahawks’ leaders can take personal responsibility of the team’s destiny. How they won’t go down embarrassed on a public stage—and Chancellor did basically the same last year in Minnesota, but especially at home.

Seattle is 11-2 all time at home in the playoffs and 5-0 under Pete Carroll. Occasional Field Gulls contributor Ben B. reminds us the Lions haven’t won on the road in the playoffs since 1957. It’s a drought emblematic of the city’s miseries that go beyond football during that period—that include near-total abandonment and false renaissances. Probably one reason for the confusion about whether Detroit has a decent defense or a high-volume offense or not is because every few years the Lions go through this process of seeming like a factor in the NFC. But then the next thing you know they’re piecing together fragments from a previously-established desolation, and it’s impossible to keep straight what their identity is from what they used to be.

Because Detroit is always rebuilding.