Lions show signs of defensive progress over past month

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Darius Slay broke on the ball almost as soon as Josh Rosen let it go. He’d been battling an injury in the game -- and has seemingly been on and off the injury report for much of the past month -- but that didn’t matter. He stepped in front of the pass, clutched his hands on the ball and took off.

He reached the end zone 67 yards later, celebrating his first NFL touchdown and giving the Lions what would be an insurmountable lead for an Arizona offense flailing for most of the day.

"I baited it,” Slay said. “I knew it was coming. I knew it before the play even happened. The only thing I was concerned about was if I was going to score with it. I knew it was coming, and I just made a play on it.

“It felt freaking awesome. I loved it.”

A defensive touchdown in the midst of another strong game from that side of the ball? Maybe the Detroit Lions are starting to figure things out, at least in how Matt Patricia would want his team to play.

The Lions, to be clear, are not a good football team. Heck, there are some weeks where Detroit isn’t even a mediocre one. But there are starting to be signs of what Patricia might want in his team in the future.

The offense is still a mess, between injuries and a lack of productivity and a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who has been both banged up and struggling. That side of the ball probably won't be addressed until the offseason, whether it's a coordinator change or some personnel moves.

The defense, though, is a place where Detroit has made tangible progress over the past month. Since Week 10, which is when the Lions really seemed to get Damon Harrison worked into the defense, the team is No. 11 in yards allowed per game (335.2).

Even more impressive, Detroit is third in the league in rushing yards per game (71.6), way down from the pre-Harrison days when the franchise was among the worst in the league at stopping the run. They’ve also been No. 13 in points allowed per game (21.80), which is a reasonable number considering the Rams were one of the five teams on the schedule.

Detroit is also starting to become more opportunistic defensively, forcing turnovers in four straight games after going three of the four games prior to that without one. So what you’re seeing now, even if the Lions are more likely to be picking in the top 10 in the 2019 draft than playing in the postseason, could be viewed as the start of progress.

And that’s not nothing considering how many defensive issues Detroit has had throughout the season.

“Just sitting out there and communicating with one another, talking about it, getting it straightened out,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “The coaches are trusting us a little bit more to allow us to talk to one another and not them tell us.”

That’s big for multiple reasons. While it’s not clear how many of Detroit’s current defensive players are going to be with the Lions in 2019, the ones Jean Francois mentioned as the players doing a lot of the communicating -- linebacker Jarrad Davis and defensive tackles A'Shawn Robinson and Harrison -- will be cornerstones for what Detroit is trying to build.

It helps Detroit, at least Sunday against Arizona and possibly again this week against Buffalo, that the offenses the Lions will face are not very good. And perhaps that’s leading the Lions to a bit of a mirage as to what they might have been able to construct over the last month.

But for Detroit, at the moment, glimpses of defensive hope are something to build on. In a season close to being lost, that has to be something to feel OK about.