Detroit Lions’ defensive issues explained by disturbing numbers. Brad Holmes shares blame

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions fielded one of the most inept defenses in NFL history in 2020, when they set franchise records for points and yards allowed.

They allowed 30 or more points in six straight games to close that season, and gave up 40 or more points an unconscionable five times that year.

Four games into this season, the Lions defense looks even worse. They’ve forced three punts in their last 10 quarters of play, have two takeaways on the year and got rolled for 555 yards of offense in Sunday’s 48-45 loss to a Seattle Seahawks team that had scored 47 points total in its first three games.

Some numbers:

⋅ The Lions are on pace to allow 599 points this season, which would shatter the NFL record for points allowed (533, by the 1981 Baltimore Colts). Along with ranking last in the league in scoring defense, they rank last in total defense (444.8 ypg), third-down defense (52.8% conversion), red-zone defense (86.7% of opponent trips resulting in touchdowns) and rushing yards allowed per play (5.6 ypc).

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⋅ With 140 points scored this season (most in the NFL) and 141 allowed, the Lions have the most combined points through four games in NFL history. Their historically bad defense is squandering some superlative play on offense.

⋅ Case in point: According to the Associated Press, the Lions are the 30th team in the Super Bowl era to score 140 or more points in their first four games. The 29 previous teams to do it went a combined 109-7, for a 94% win percentage. The Lions are 1-3 and the only team to score that many points with a losing record after four games.

⋅ On Sunday, the Lions set a franchise record for most points scored in a loss.

Lions coach Dan Campbell tried to alleviate some of the blame from his defense after Sunday’s game, saying he and his staff were responsible for not fixing the unit’s repeated mistakes and noting the offense and special teams could be better, too. Jared Goff, similarly, was kicking himself about the interception he threw early in the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown, saying “that may have been the difference” in a three-point game.

There is truth to what both Campbell and Goff said.

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Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn must get more out of a defense they expected to be better this season. The unit does not get enough pressure with its four-man pass rush, can’t win one-on-one in the back end and lacks playmakers at every level.

And Goff, for as well as he has played this season — he’s tied for the NFL lead with 11 touchdown passes — has thrown two pick-6s that have amplified the Lions’ defensive woes.

I’d throw general manager Brad Holmes into the blame pit, too, as he has saddled Campbell and his staff with inadequate talent on the defensive side of the ball. Depth is an issue all over the unit, in part because the Lions have gotten nothing out of their two second-round picks, Levi Onwuzurike and Josh Paschal, and one of last year’s third-round choices (Ifeatu Melifonwu) because of injuries.

Drafting injured second-rounders — Holmes said the Lions were aware of medical issues coming out of college with both Onwuzurike and Paschal — is reprehensible given the availability of talent in the top 50 picks, the minimal control (four years) teams have on players taken outside of Round 1 and the state of rebuild the Lions have been in since Holmes and Campbell arrived in town.

But the Lions’ disappointing start to this season falls mostly on their defense.

The unit has been bad against the run, worse against the pass and does not appear to be learning from its mistakes.

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“I told the team, the worst thing we can do is start pointing fingers at each other and, ‘You did this. We didn’t do this. We put up the —,’” Campbell said. “We can’t do that, man. We can’t let anybody pull us apart because as dismal as it is right now, we’re not as far away as it feels. But until we do something about it, quit talking about it, doesn’t matter. We can rob ourselves and we can say we’re going to be better, but until we actually do it and make a commitment (it doesn’t matter).”

The Lions are not as far away as it feels because the NFL is an offensive game and they have the ability to score on anyone, especially some of the dregs still remaining on their schedule.

But the reality is they won’t be a serious threat to do anything, even in the watered-down NFC, until they fix their defense, and that’s not an easy task a month into the season.

Campbell said he and Glenn will do “a real deep dive” into the defense to identify problems in players, scheme and whatever else may be ailing the unit. The problem is, some of those things already have been identified and for whatever reason — youth? inexperience? inability? — remain an issue.

“I’ve been a part of good defensive football and good play calling,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “If you look at probably 95% of the plays, or like if you look at a ton of the plays (we run), it’s not because of his play calling (we’re making mistakes). We’re in the most basic defense you could be in, so that’s the frustrating part. We run a basic defense and (we’re still making mistakes).”

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As their struggles mount, Anzalone said players must resist the urge to do more than what their job requirements are on the field.

“It’s hard to keep saying that we’re close. It’s time to get it done,” he said. “And that’s the hard part is to like, you just don’t want to get in a situation where guys feel like I’ve got to cover up someone else and make a play, and then they mess up on their play where they’re supposed to be. We just need 11 guys doing their job.”

Goff said it’s incumbent upon the 11 players on offense to do their job, too, and not worry about the fires they must put out for their defense.

He’s been in situations before where a lack of support undermines a player or unit and seen it go “downhill really quickly.”

Defensively at least, the Lions do not have much downside to go from here. They have a winnable game on tap Sunday against a New England Patriots team that likely will be starting a backup quarterback, possibly its third-stringer, and if they stumble into the bye week at 1-4 their season will be over before Halloween for the fifth straight year.

“We’ve got a lot of games ahead of us,” Goff said. “I know it’s not the start we want and it’s hard to sit here at 1-3 and say anything positive, but there is a lot of game ahead of us, a lot of season to be played and if we don’t kick it into gear quickly here, it won’t favor us, so have to find a way to win these games, these close game, these high scoring games, whatever you have. Have to find a way to win them and there will be no more excuses if we do.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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