Last year the Lions were a team that was hard to believe in. It was almost as if the whole season was too good to be true, the mirage of comebacks only left fans chasing the high of Matthew Stafford rallying the troops, but the end of the season proved to be the real Lions.
After starting 9-4 the Lions dropped their last four games, including an embarrassing performance in last season’s Wild Card game against the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks controlled the game, thanks to 177 rushing yards and ended up defeating the Lions 26-6. The loss validated the belief that the Lions weren’t quite ready to make the jump to contention in the NFC.
But through two weeks of the 2017 NFL season the Lions have proved to be much improved on the defensive end, specifically in two areas that they struggled in last year; pressuring the quarterback and creating turnovers.
The 2016 Lions were dreadful at getting to the quarterback. They ranked second to last in sacks with just 26 on the year. It was a serious problem for the team. Not only did their inability to get to the QB put a tremendous amount of pressure on their secondary to defend the pass for longer periods of time, and as a result, making it much more difficult, but it also allowed opponents to convert third downs at a very high clip.
Opponents moved the chains on third down at an alarming rate against the Lions. The league average for third down conversion percentage in 2016 was 39.7 percent; the Lions allowed opponents to convert on third down 46.3 percent of the time.
Although it is a small sample of just two games, this season opponents have extended drives on third down only 37 percent of the time. Keeping this percentage as low as possible will keep the defense off the field more and give them more time to rest on the sideline, while Stafford and the offense look to move the ball the other way.
Having fresh legs is very important to the success of a defense, especially a relentless pass rush. Even though the Lions defensive line only generated one sack in the first game of the season, they were still in Carson Palmer’s face throughout the game, and forced him to make costly mistakes, including throwing a pick-six.
Eli Manning wasn’t quite as lucky as Palmer. He was met in the backfield by Ziggy Ansah three times alone, thanks to the putrid blocking of Giants left tackle Ereck Flowers. The Lions had five sacks during Monday night’s contest and their ability to get pressure on the quarterback will be a huge factor in how the rest of their season goes.
The other noticeable difference in the defense this season has been their ability to create turnovers. Last season the Lions defense ranked 28th in turnovers, they had 14 on the year. Through two games they already have five.
Carson Palmer’s mediocre performance inflates that statistic through two games, but turnovers often become contagious through the course of the season, and right now the Lions defensive playmakers are making big plays.
The Lions cannot continue to rely on Stafford to bail them out at the end of games like last season. That kind of play is not sustainable. This defense looks faster and stronger than last year, and they will need to continue to stifle opponents’ offenses if the Lions are going to make the leap to legitimate contender.