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Lions defense shows improvement even as injuries continue to pile up

DETROIT – Darius Slay was lying on the ground, far away from the play, clutching his hamstring. The Detroit Lions' defense, a group that had been inconsistent throughout the season, had actually been playing well.

But this was going to be a big problem. Slay was out for the rest of the game. Lions coach Jim Caldwell didn't know how much time, if any, Slay could miss going forward. For a Lions defense that actually showed some progress Sunday in a 20-17 win over Washington, that's a massive concern for the immediate future considering Detroit next travels to Houston to face dynamic receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller.

"It was definitely a shot," Lions safety Tavon Wilson said. "Obviously Darius means a lot to our team, but it's next man up. Those other guys got in there and played great defense for us and we're fortunate enough to have as many good players as we have."

After the game, almost every Lions defensive player extolled the time-worn clich├ęd mantra of "next man up" in the NFL. But the Lions have dealt with multiple defensive injuries throughout the season.

Haloti Ngata, the team's best defensive tackle, has been out two weeks with a shoulder injury. DeAndre Levy, the team's best linebacker, hasn't played since Week 1 due to quad and knee injuries. Ezekiel Ansah is back for the Lions, but they lost him for three weeks with an ankle injury. Depth has been an issue at linebacker, where multiple guys have suffered injuries.

It caused coverage problems with the Lions. As late as last week, Detroit's defensive players lamented they were giving up too many yards and too many big plays. They knew they would eventually end up in a game where the defense would need to be relied on to be a stopper.

In some ways, they were Sunday. They forced two fumbles -- although Washington's sloppy ball-handling played a role. They held Washington to three points over the first three quarters, vast improvement for a defense that had been allowing teams and opposing quarterbacks to shred them all season long.

The Lions were doing this by doing something defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has shown to be capable of pulling off in past seasons: Mixing and matching his available personnel to suit their strengths. The Lions did this when they lost Stephen Tulloch in 2014 and again last year when they lost Levy for the season.

Even before Slay's hamstring injury, the Lions used a bunch of different packages early Sunday against Washington, from a three-safety package with Rafael Bush and Wilson in the game to a package with rookie safety Miles Killebrew playing linebacker to even a 4-4 defense in short-yardage. There have been defensive line packages with four defensive ends along with the typical rotations that put players in the best possible position for success.

"All those things are kind of strategic, they happen time and time again after every game," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "You're not quite certain when your guys are coming back. I don't know when Slay is coming back, it may be some stuff that we have to use over again.

"But it was within the context of our scheme and what we anticipate and expect. We don't care who we put in there, he's got to execute."

That was the common theme for the Lions after the game. Pushing the next-man-up mentality, while a useful locker room tactic, doesn't exactly seem to be true. After all, Detroit paid Slay $50.2 million in an extension this season, and some players make more than others for a reason.

But the mentality the Lions are trying to preach goes into the preparation that Detroit is trying to execute, even if it is more complicated than just inserting Player X to replace Player Y.

"That's the crazy part," Lions safety Don Carey said. "We're not looking for somebody to be Darius. We're looking for somebody to play in the scheme of the defense, the technique of that defense and execute it to the best of their ability.

"Therefore when the next man steps up, that's what we expect him to do and that's what we've been getting."

On Sunday, they got more of it than they have all season. Detroit's forced fumble, one of its fumble recoveries, both of its sacks and four of its eight quarterback hits came from depth players. And that's something Detroit needs to see more of if it is going to continue its October winning streak.