Lions top NFL on third-down defense

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It is a mentality, a thought process carrying over from high school to college and for the Detroit Lions on to the NFL.

Every coach who has ever coached football preaches it and mentions it, how a defense making stops on third downs are instrumental to any victory and any successful season.

This season, no one is accomplishing this better than the Lions, who are allowing teams to convert third downs just 21.3 percent of the time. They are one of two teams, along with Kansas City at 22.2 percent, to keep teams under 30 percent so far this year.

“It’s definitely a mentality you’ve got to have, man,” Detroit defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said. “We just know what’s at stake. It’s a big momentum swing to get off on third down if we don’t get a sack or a play like that.

“We know what it does for the team so it’s very important to us.”

If Detroit can keep this pace going -- and Lions coach Jim Schwartz said earlier in the week it would be difficult to do -- it would be the best third-down conversion defense since at least 2001.

Since 2001, only four teams have held teams under a 30 percent conversion rate over an entire season in the NFL: Tennessee (27.7), Baltimore (29.4) and Denver (29.6) in 2003 and Baltimore (28.8) in 2006.

The good news for the Lions there -- if they can keep their pace even close to what it is now and stay under 30 percent, all four of those teams made the playoffs. None won or even made the Super Bowl, but they all had a shot at it by the end of the season.

Detroit wasn’t bad on third-down defense a year ago, finishing 10th in the league with a 36.5 percent conversion rate. But the pace the Lions are on now is fairly historic.

The Lions' current rate, though, is extremely impressive -- not only because of the lack of conversion rate but also because of what Detroit is doing on first and second downs to set it up.

The Lions have allowed an NFL-low 10 third-down conversions, not including three penalties that awarded teams first downs. They have only been in third-down situations 47 times this season, a shade under 12 times a game, not including those three penalties.

Detroit’s opponents, including those three penalized plays, are averaging 7.54 yards-to-go per third down, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and are gaining an average of 3.5 yards on those third downs, according to Stats & Info. On just the 47 plays that have counted, the Lions are allowing just 2.85 yards for a third-down play and an opponent passer rating of 44.4 -- second-lowest in the league behind Seattle.

Part of why Detroit has been so good in these spots starts with the defensive line, where Ndamukong Suh has been a disruptive force all season, and ends with the Lions’ two safeties, Glover Quin and Louis Delmas. Both Quin and Delmas intercepted a pass on third down Sunday against Chicago.

“It’s a combination of rush and coverage,” defensive tackle Andre Fluellen said. “They don’t really work without the other. The rush doesn’t work without the back end covering and the back end can’t cover forever without the rush.

“It’s a good combination of that. We’ve been having a good game plan to do those things.”

The Lions have intercepted three passes on third down. They’ve sacked opposing quarterbacks five times on third down. One of the craziest parts of this? Detroit isn’t even bringing a ton of pressure on third downs.

The Lions, per Stats & Information, are only blitzing on 17 percent of opponent’s third downs, the second-lowest number in the league.

“We certainly spent a lot of time on third down and we want to get off the field on third down,” Schwartz said. “It’s just the rate we’re going at now is pretty tough to sustain. We have guys that rush. We have some guys in the backend that can get the ball.

“We have some guys that have played pretty smart and matched up routes. I think the combination of the two. We have blitzed from time-to-time, I think that’s been effective when we have.”

Against Green Bay on Sunday, Detroit will need all of that if it wants to snap its 22-game losing streak in Wisconsin.

Note: Statistics used in this story were provided by ESPN Stats & Information.