Matthew Stafford has dragged the Detroit Lions to a 4-3 record this season.
Somehow, the Lions defense must start giving him a little more help.
All four of Detroit’s wins have come when Stafford has led a game-winning drive in the final five minutes, usually after the defense has let the opposition come from behind.
It isn’t only a problem at the end of games, though. The Lions are ranked 25th in yards allowed, 28th in turnovers forced, 27th in yards allowed per passing attempt and 26th in yards allowed per rush. They’ve given up points than expected in all seven games and are the 32nd-ranked NFL defensive by Football Outsiders’ DVOA formula.
Even with a winning record as they near the midpoint of the season, Football Outsiders gives them just a 14.4 percent chance at making the playoffs. The defense is the reason – their statistics show the Lions with an above-average offense and outstanding special teams.
Detroit’s defense was the biggest reason that they dropped from 11-5 in 2014 to 7-9 in 2015, and they did very little to improve it in the offseason. They had a solid core that included defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, defensive end Ziggy Ansah, linebacker DeAndre Levy, cornerback Darius Slay and safety Glover Quin, but didn’t make any significant additions.
That left the team with holes at several key positions and meant they had very little depth.
A healthy defense would have struggled this season, but Detroit has also been plagued by injuries to their top players. Levy has only played in one game due to a strained quad and knee problems, and Ansah missed three games with an ankle sprain. After a 15-sack season last year, he’s still on zero in 2016.
Ngata has missed two games with a shoulder injury and is a question mark for Sunday’s game in Houston, while Slay is expected to miss the Texans game with a pulled hamstring. Of Detroit’s five above-average defenders, only Quin has managed to stay healthy.
That’s where the lack of depth has become a major problem. Kerry Hyder has stepped with five sacks at defensive end, making up for some of Ansah’s production, but that hasn’t happened at other positions. Kirk Cousins led what appeared to be a winning touchdown drive with Slay on the sidelines, and Detroit has struggled against the run without Ngata and Levy.
The secondary might get a break this week because Brock Osweiler doesn’t appear likely to light up any defense. However, if the Lions can’t generate a pass rush, he’s going to have time to set himself and throw at a weak group of defensive backs.
The Texans are also likely to get Lamar Miller back from a shoulder injury, and he and Alfred Blue should be able to take advantage of Detroit’s poor run defense.
Given Houston’s outstanding pass defense, the Lions can’t count on Stafford to win this game by himself, and Detroit isn’t likely to feast on a bad Texans run defense.
That means the cornerback combination of Johnson Bademosi, Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs must step up to shut down the pass, while Hyder needs help rushing the passer. The linebackers are likely to struggle – Levy isn’t going to be back and Detroit traded away starter Kyle Van Noy for a late-round draft pick – but they can’t let Miller and Blue run wild.
The Lions don’t need a defense on par with the 1985 Bears to win on Sunday, but they are going to need better performances if they want to make an unlikely postseason run.