Passing off the mantle of worst
The great national nightmare is over — for now.
The Detroit Lions no longer have the worst defense in the league.
By holding the Bengals' Carson Palmer to 220 yards in last Sunday's 23-13 loss (albeit much of that by design, as the Bengals haven't had a 300-yard passer in 28 games), the Lions were able to leap-frog out of the NFL's basement, in terms of pass defense. The Cleveland Browns, who gave up 373 yards to San Diego's Phillip Rivers, now rank as the worst in the NFL in pass defense and total defense.
That, coupled with three forced turnovers — two picks and a forced fumble on a corner blitz — and indications are that the Lions' secondary may finally beginning to gel.
“We’ve made some improvement there. We’re not giving up those long runs like we were earlier in the season. I think we’re playing better team defense. I think the Cincinnati game was a good example of that. We had one (play) and it wasn’t a mental breakdown or miscommunication, it was just a play that we didn’t make physically that gave up that long touchdown pass," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "Earlier in the year and pretty much throughout the year we were having problems with communication and missing assignments, basically giving up big plays for free in both the run game and the pass game. We’ve started to ease those a little bit. We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re making some progress there.”
Much of the blame for that deficiency can be laid off on a total overhaul of the secondary, coupled with injuries.
The Lions' front office brought in an entirely new starting defensive backfield — one player by draft, two through free agency and one by trade — then had to keep adding additional pieces through another trade and numerous more signings as the season progressed, and injuries mounted.
Brought in for a free-agent workout on the eve of training camp, veteran corner Will James earned a starting spot in Week 2, and has been one of the few rocks of the unit. Rookie free safety Louis Delmas is the only other player who has been available (and dressed) for every game this season.
"Obviously, the ultimate goal is to win games, so I came here, and wanted to be a part of a defense, that helps the team win games. Unfortunately, up to this point, we haven’t got as many wins as we would like, but I’m happy to have helped us make progress. Any time you’re coming off a season like we came off last year — and I’m not even going to bring it up, because the locker room is completely different — you’ve gotta improve," James said. "This defense here, through the year, we’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re starting to get some kind of chemistry back there, and I’m happy to be a part of it. I feel like anything I can do, they ask me to do, to help the defense, I’m for it. They’ve given me a pretty hefty role back there, and I’ve been able to take the starting job, and keep it, and do a good job out there."
James left last Sunday's game against Cincinnati with a shoulder in jury, and was replaced by Anthony Henry, who had begun the season as a starter. Working as a backup safety for the last three weeks, Henry stepped up with five tackles and an interception in the relief role, and made the move back to corner full-time this week, in case he needs to play in place of James again on Sunday at Baltimore.
The constant shuffling — personally, and as a group — has been hard, according to Henry.
"It’s tough. If you look — and I’m not saying that’s the case here — but if you look at teams that rebuild, it takes a little bit of time being together. If you’ve maybe got two safeties that have been together for a while, then you get two new corners, or two guys that have been behind each other, as long as they have a direct communication with the safeties — they’re the primary guys who get the whole defense out, and go like that," he said. "But if you get two guys who be like spot playing, stuff like that, that’s tough. Not to be able to get certain reps in practice, that’s tough."
More than amenable to the switch to safety at some point in his career, Henry is in the final year of a five-year contract that he signed with the Cowboys, who shipped him to the Lions on March 2, in exchange for the Lions' former starting quarterback, Jon Kitna. Both players were due a $1 million roster bonus this spring.