Lions have one of the NFL's worst defenses, but answers are hard to find

DETROIT -- Devon Kennard stood in front of his locker, both somber and defiant. Another week gone, and the Detroit Lions linebacker had to answer the same questions about the defense he captains that has stopped next to no one this season.

As he began, he let out a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said. “Pretty frustrating.”

The Lions had just given up 20 or more points for the eighth straight week and 450 or more yards for the third time in five games. They wasted another offensive performance -- 27 points with a backup quarterback and practice-squad running back -- that should have been enough for a win. Although Matt Patricia dismissed that thought -- he called looking at the 27 points “a flat stat line” -- reality is different.

The Lions are averaging 24.4 points per game on offense. That puts them -- heading into Sunday night -- 13th in the league. Only one team above them has a losing record, Tampa Bay, which means the Detroit offense is doing its part. The defense is where it all has gone wrong.

“I feel like a broken record at this point,” Kennard said. “Another game where I feel the offense played well enough for us to win, but we got to figure it out collectively as a defense. We got to play better, and we can play better.”

Ten games into a season that will likely end without a playoff berth, the Lions are what the numbers say they are: a bend-and-usually-break unit mired in inconsistency. Every time they appear to show promise in one area, the next opponent blows it completely apart. The Lions know what opponents like to do. They plan for it. Take Sunday, for instance, against Dallas, which thrives on big downfield passes. Detroit allowed 10 passes of 16 or more yards from QB Dak Prescott, some short throws with long runs after catch and some deep plays receivers made.

Detroit is in the bottom 10 in almost every major statistical category, can’t rush the quarterback and is worst in the NFL at forcing interceptions per attempt, at 0.8%. The 412.8 yards per game the Lions are allowing this season are 8.4 yards more per game than Detroit’s 404.4 yards allowed in 2008 -- the season the Lions went 0-16.

Although the players and coaches preach consistency as a way to search for answers and solve season-long problems, the failure of the defense warrants collective blame. The coaches have not put players in position to be successful often enough. The scheme has often been too passive, blitzing a league-low 18.3% of the time. Only one other team has blitzed less than 20% of the time this season, the Los Angeles Chargers, but they have bookends of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, two dynamic pass-rushers.

Of course, even when Detroit does blitz, it isn’t successful. Only one game this season, against the Chicago Bears, saw the Lions with a 50% pressure rate or better when blitzing, according to Next Gen Stats.

The Lions believe they have good players, but some of those good players have not played to the levels they are expected to. Missed tackles are frequent across the defense. No player has more than five sacks, and last season's sack leader, Romeo Okwara, has a half-sack. Damon Harrison, the team’s best run-stuffer, has struggled intermittently throughout the year. Linebacker Jarrad Davis’ role continues to be nebulous. The Lions’ secondary has three interceptions -- combined.

All across the defense, players are missing a play here and a play there. It adds up to a defense that hasn't been able to stop anyone.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” safety Tavon Wilson said. “We got to play a lot better as players, and that’s the bottom line, honestly. A better call here, a better call there, you know, that don’t matter. Our coaches draw up plays so we can make plays. And for whatever reason, we ain’t making them.”

The answers might not come this season. Almost two-thirds of the way through the season, Detroit’s defense under its defensive-minded coach is the main reason the franchise is essentially out of the playoff race.

Patricia, at this point, is saying, “We just have to try to be consistent at something.” He’s hoping that maybe two straight weeks of being good against the run, including holding Ezekiel Elliott to 45 yards rushing, could be something to build on. But consistency has eluded Detroit’s defense all season. And there’s little time left for that to change.

“I don’t think we just kind of sit back and say, ‘That’s it. We’re good, or we’re not good,'" Patricia said. “I think we try to get better. Again, we’re just trying to improve every single week with what we’re doing.”

That progress hasn’t shown up yet.