Worried about the Detroit Lions’ defense? It was better than you think in 2022

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season, by metric and by sight. That’s the narrative, right?

Which is why so many were surprised Brad Holmes didn’t take more defenders during last week’s NFL draft. (Five of the Lions’ eight draft picks were on offense.)

Holmes had his reasons. They were sound ones.

The main one?

The defense wasn’t as bad as it seemed.

Oh, the Lions were awful on that side of the ball, at least during their opening 1-6 run. So awful that the year-end stats couldn’t be helped by the notable midseason improvement.

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That improvement is what Holmes — and head coach Dan Campbell — are looking at and helps explain why they traded the No. 6 pick for more picks, including No. 12 overall, and then used it on a play-making running back with receiving skills.

A few reasons explain the Lions’ uptick defensively the back half of the season. But we’ll get to those in a moment.

First, some numbers — let’s start with the easiest one.

When the Lions began the season 1-6, their defense was historically bad. In those seven games, they gave up 35 points per game, including 48 to Seattle in Week 4 (though that’s warped slightly by a pick-six off a Jared Goff pass, as well).

You may remember that game at Ford Field. The Lions scored 45. It wasn’t enough.

Through seven games, the Lions were on pace to give up the most points in NFL history — yeah, that’s “historically bad.”

They allowed 25 first downs a game, worst in the league. They allowed 8.24 passing yards per attempt, also worst in the league. They even allowed teams to score TDs 73.1% of the time in the red zone, which was — you guessed it —worst in the league.

Think about that last one for a moment: If a team got to the Lions’ 20-yard-line, its odds were nearly three-in-four of scoring a touchdown.

That kind of resistance — or lack of it — can wear a team down. And yet the Lions won five of their next six games … because of defense.


For one, the quality of offense they faced diminished, though three of their wins in that stretch — Buffalo, Jacksonville and Minnesota — featured competent-to-good offenses. But that’s not giving the Lions credit for the changes they made and the improvement that followed.

First, Campbell fired defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant. Second, cornerback Jerry Jacobs and rookie defensive end Josh Paschal were added to the starting lineup.

Aidan Hutchinson changed his stance. John Cominsky healed up. And Isaiah Buggs started finding a role. Add in James Houston’s stunning ascent — from practice squad to sack artist — and suddenly the Lions had a defensive line able to pressure the quarterback and plug lanes for running backs.

(Except against Carolina, which ultimately cost them a playoff berth.)

Still, that the Lions got so close to making the playoffs after that putrid start on defense tells us plenty about why Holmes drafted the way he did last week.

He knows, for example, that during a 5-1 turnaround after the 1-6 start, the Lions allowed 20.3 points per game, good enough for 11th stingiest in the NFL. They chopped almost five yards per pass allowed off their average, climbing from worst in the league to third-best. And they moved from 30th to 19th in yards rushing per game.

Was the bump enough to make the playoffs? No, obviously not, thanks to that Carolina loss. But that game was the only hiccup defensively down the stretch.

All of which is to say, the Lions played like a middle-of-the-pack defense for the majority of their last 10 games. That’s a big leap.

Which means that Holmes and Campbell aren’t trying to improve the worst defense in the league, merely 16th-worst (give or take) defense in the league. That gap is significant.

Significantly easier to manage as well, particularly considering how young the defense is. In other words, if the defensive improvement last season was partly coaching and partly health but mostly growth from rookies, doesn’t it stand that the growth should continue this coming season?


And that brings us back to last week’s draft; Holmes knew he had a handful of promising players just learning the NFL game, and he knew he’d already addressed — through free agency the weakest part of last year’s defense: the secondary.

In that context then, taking running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta with two of Detroit’s first three picks — and two of the first 34 picks overall — makes sense, at least on paper. For as explosive as the Lions offense was a season ago, they only scored 20 points apiece against the two best defenses they faced:

The Jets and the Packers.

Adding a home-run threat in the backfield who can also line up on the edge or the slot could help the offense against the stiffest defenses. So, too, could adding a tight end who can make plays in the passing game.

Will Gibbs and LaPorta turn into reliable difference-makers? We’ll see.

What can be said is that Holmes felt free to draft them because he believes the Lions’ defense already is better than most remember.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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