After the 2014 season, Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew insisted his team’s offense and defense weren’t as far away as the numbers suggested as he explained some of the team’s offense-based draft picks and free-agent signings.
Turns out, he was right. Other than points allowed, sack percentage and run defense, the Lions have actually been remarkably similar to the defense from last season run by Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham. This season’s coordinator, Teryl Austin, deserves credit for managing through injuries to starters, but the foundation was there already with Ndamukong Suh, Darius Slay and the rest.
And if you look at the league leaders, Schwartz has remained a strong coordinator. But here’s a look at the impressive Lions defense this year by the numbers and a link to the prior look at the offense.
Last season: 48.8/12th
NFL leader: Buffalo -- 36.3
Quick thoughts: While yards per game is nice, this shows how well the Lions have been able to limit quarterbacks this season. Only four quarterbacks -- Drew Brees (73.0), Drew Stanton (70.5), Tom Brady (86.2) and Aaron Rodgers (95.3) -- had a QBR over 70 in a game against the Lions this season. Stanton is the anomaly, but the Lions have been consistently good here. Surprisingly, the number isn’t that much better than 2013.
Yards per game
Last season: 346.6/16th
NFL Leader: Seattle -- 267.1
Quick thoughts: This has been huge for field position and also for just limiting Lions opponents this season. A lot of this is bolstered by the Detroit run defense. Half-a-field a game less is massive when it comes to allowing points.
Rushing yards per game
Last season: 99.75/6th
NFL Leader: DETROIT
Quick thoughts: The Lions were pretty good here last season. They were elite this season -- one of the best run defense units of the past decade. When you look at the yards-per-game difference, it all starts here. Also, the Lions have made multiple teams one-dimensional and were able to keep up the rate even without Nick Fairley. That’s on both players and scheme.
Passing yards per game
Last season: 246.88/23rd
NFL Leader: Seattle -- 185.63
Quick thoughts: There actually isn’t that much difference here -- an average of one chunk play per game. The bigger difference has been the lack of big plays allowed by Detroit’s secondary, something that isn’t necessarily displayed in a yards-per-game metric. Still better than a season ago, though.
Last season: 2.6/19th
NFL Leader: San Francisco -- 4.2
Quick thoughts: This number climbed steadily throughout the season as Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo both went on lengthy streaks of games with an interception. Most of the team’s picks have come from those two. These often ended up being big plays as well, either clinching or turning games, especially from Quin in December.
Last season: 5.8/28th
NFL Leader: Buffalo -- 9.7
Quick thoughts: This has been a big difference -- and would be even greater if it were pressure percentage. One of the bigger criticisms of last season’s Detroit defense was the inability to finish sacks. This year’s group has and a lot of that has to do with the attention Ndamukong Suh takes up in the middle, freeing up the ends to make plays on single blocks. Interesting to me, too, is Buffalo’s defense being the best at this considering who the Bills' defensive coordinator is: Jim Schwartz.
Last season: 30.3/1st
NFL Leader: Buffalo -- 33.2
Quick thoughts: This surprised me, mostly because I had forgotten how good Detroit was on third down last season. Considering that, it isn’t surprising the Bills are the NFL leader here. The Lions have been good in this area, though, and have gotten off the field in almost every big spot this season.
Red zone efficiency
Last season: 38.1/2nd
NFL Leader: Kansas City -- 38.9
Quick thoughts: Again, forgot how good Detroit was here last season. Was somewhat surprised how high this number is, especially considering how good the Lions have been at keeping opponents from scoring. That it is a 15 percent jump from last season speaks to how good Detroit’s defense has been in other areas.
Points Per Game
Last season: 23.5/15th
NFL Leader: Seattle -- 15.9
Quick thoughts: The most important stat in the NFL. If you don’t give up points, you don’t lose. The Lions’ jump from 7-9 to 11-5 starts with giving up a touchdown less per game than last season. The Lions gave up more than 20 points 10 times last season. This season? The Lions have done that five times (Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta, New England and Green Bay) and managed to go 2-3 in those games. Last season, they went 3-7.
Time of possession
Last season: 28:06/4th
NFL Leader: Pittsburgh -- 27:35
Quick thoughts: Doesn’t matter the year, the Lions were good at getting teams off the field the past two seasons. The difference has been those points. Detroit is forcing teams off the field with turnovers or punts this season. Last season, it was more with touchdowns.