Going Deep: The Elite Detroit Lions’ Defense

Brennen Gorman examines the Detroit's defense and Goes Deep to explain why this unit is among the elite in 2018.

Photo by: Steven King / Icon Sportswire

On October 24 the Detroit Lions traded their 2019 5th round pick to the New York Giants for Damon Harrison. The Detroit Lions had an above-average defense before the trade and now have a top-5 defensive unit for the remainder of the 2018 season. In this Going Deep, Brennen Gorman will prove the above statement by breaking down Detroit’s defense and the team’s defensive “woes.”

Pass Defense

To start with Detroit’s more obvious field of excellence, through Week Seven Detroit has allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards (1,325), has the fourth-most sacks (21), and is tied for the sixth-fewest defensive penalties in the league. This unit features superstars Darius Slay (rated the eighth best cornerback by Pro Football Focus (“PFF”)) and Glover Quin (rated the fifth best safety by PFF in 2017). Slay and Quin have started 2018 slower than accustomed, but both are key pieces in defending the pass this season. Detroit is able to perform as consistently as it has against the pass because of the depth it has in its secondary. Nevin LawsonQuandre Diggs, and Tavon Wilson have all been standouts so far this season. Jarrad Davis is a budding superstar at middle linebacker as is Devon Kennard on the outside (the pair combining for eight sacks).

If there was one knock against this pass defense it would be their dismal 25th rank in pressure rate (25.8%) (per PFF) contributing to an opposing 107.1 passer rating. Cyclically, the rating is high because opposing quarterbacks dump the ball off for short yard gains for nearly 78% of opposing completions. Despite a lack of a pass rush, quarterbacks have had little success in mid to deep throws as a result of Detroit’s strong secondary. Subsequently, this creates a scenario where Detroit has allowed only 128 first down attempts (12th) and a league-low 67 third-down attempts (and fourth lowest third-down conversions).

Ezekiel Ansah, one of Detroit’s other superstars, (albeit inconsistently) has not played since injuring his shoulder in Week One. Ansah was limited in heading into Week Eight and once he returns will serve as an improvement to Detroit’s pressure rating (Ansah brought in 12 sacks in only 14 games in 2017). Although Ansah will not solve Detroit’s passing rush – he should be a factor in improving the team’s results.

Run Defense

Detroit’s run defense has been defined by the community as the result of four plays. The observation that Detroit has a poor defense because of the yards it has allowed is wrong. In removing these plays as aberrations, play-by-play, pound-for-pound, Detroit has a had a competent run defense that has improved as the season has progressed. While this analysis does not change what has happened and certainly each of these plays made an impact on Detroit’s real-life schedule (with narrow losses to San Francisco and Dallas) – but it does project for how the unit will perform in the coming weeks with outliers removed.

The Plays in Question 

Week Player Yardage Touchdown
Week One Isaiah Crowell 62 yards Yes
Week Two Matt Breida 66 yards Yes
Week Four Ezekiel Elliot 41 yards No
Week Seven Kenyan Drake 54 yards Yes
Total 223 yards 3 TD
  • Removing these 223 yards leaves Detroit having allowed 613 rushing yards through Week Seven. That places the unit as having allowed the eighth-fewest rushing yards of any team.
  • Removing the three touchdowns netted through these four plays would leave Detroit with only one rushing touchdown allowed — tied for second fewest (with Houston) behind only Chicago, a unit which has yet to let up a rushing touchdown this season.

To put this in perspective, 26% of Detroit’s rushing yards allowed and 75% of the team’s rushing touchdowns allowed this season came from only 2% of opposing rushing attempts. In the other 98% of opponent rushing attempts, teams have averaged only 4.0 YPC (this figure includes two additional 20+ rushing gains by Ezekiel Elliot). A 4.0 YPC would leave Detroit tied for seventh fewest through Week Seven.

To further put this in perspective, 21 teams have not let up a 41+ rush, 26 teams have not let up a 54+ yard rush, and only three teams have allowed a run farther than Matt Brieda‘s 66-yard run so far this season. While an occasional breakaway run is common enough (Detroit is tied for eighth most 20+ yard runs (6)) — the length of Detroit’s allowed breakaways and the frequency is unique to their team (Detroit has the most 40+ yard runs (4) and only four other defenses have let up more than one (1) 40+ yard rush this season).

With the acquisition of Damon Harrison, Detroit’s run defense will be pushed even higher. Harrison should immediately take over for Sylvester Williams took over for Sylvester Williams with Williams’ release on October 25. Harrison will play alongside Ricky Jean-Francios in the interior. Harrison is a nose-tackle cut from the cloth of Vince Wilfork, in his prime at 29 years old, and was ranked by PFF as the top run defender in 2017 (and in the top-10 in five of the last six years as an interior lineman). Harrison currently ranks as the 7th best interior lineman by PFF, his counterpart Williams ranked 78th (A’Shawn Robinson is currently ranked 13th). Harrison is a one-man wrecking ball that can take out several running lanes by himself. If there was doubt in this unit’s ability to stop the run, Harrison nearly single-handedly erases those concerns. Detroit rushes the center 30% of the time and is built around a strong nose tackle – Harrison is set to be the team’s feature lineman on Day One.

In Conclusion

It is worth noting that Detroit’s offense plays a large role in the success of its defense. Detroit has the eighth-highest average time of possession and the development of their run game in Kerryon Johnson is expected to push the team’s ATOP higher. Moreover, Detroit’s offense has not given up a turnover since Week 3 when Matt Stafford threw for one interception. The fewer plays Detroit needs to defend against, the fewer opportunities their opponents have to score and the better rested the unit is when on the field – although for fantasy purposes, this is less opportunity to garner a turnover.

While this sort of contextualizing could well see another team rise in the rankings – there is little doubt the significance the above four rushing plays had in painting a broad picture of the state of Detroit’s defense in 2018. That should change with the addition of Damon Harrison and the return of Ezekiel Ansah. Detroit may not be done upgrading its defensive unit, although even if it is — the best is yet to come for this Detroit defense.

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