The Detroit Lions came into this season believing that their defense was fully rebuilt with the offseason acquisitions of Eric Wright, Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, and Nick Fairley, in addition to already having great players like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Louis Delmas and Ndamukong Suh. Yet, the Lions go into the final week of regular season play ranked 21st in the NFL in points allowed. They are 26th against the run and 14th against the pass, which would let you believe that the Lions have quite a bit of rebuilding still left to do.
That isn't to say that the Lions have not progressed in the last three years. When Martin Mayhew took over this team in 2008, the Detroit Lions were one of the worst defenses in NFL history. They were one of only three teams since 2001 that allowed more than 30 points a game ('09 Lions and '01 Colts being the other two). In hindsight, the 22.8 points they are allowing right now looks pretty good compared to what we are used to from Lions defenses. Still, the Lions coaching staff was given a ton of talent and depth to work with compared to many others teams around the league, and I think they could have done a far better job.
Right now, the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks have all managed to produce top 10 defenses in the NFL. When you look at their respective rosters, I don't think anyone could argue that any of those teams have more talent or depth than the Lions do, yet they have managed to hold teams to nearly a field goal less than the Lions. This is not to say that Gunther Cunningham or Jim Schwartz needs to be replaced in the offseason, but I certainly feel that Cunningham should be on the hot seat going into next season.
I feel that the Lions defensive problems are a two-pronged thing right now. Clearly, the penalties are hurting them on both sides of the ball. The Lions currently rank 30th in the league with 113 penalties for 914 yards. Basically, the team as a whole loses nearly 61 yards every game just because of stupid mistakes. I wish I had stats to show that most of these penalties are on the defensive side of the ball, but I couldn't find any such stats. Still, I think anyone that watches Lions games knows that our defense commits far more penalties than our offense.
The second part of the issue to me is the scheme. The Lions play a type of defensive front called the "wide nine." It refers to the fact that both defensive ends on the line play the nine technique, meaning they line up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. This means that they are not in position to defend the C gaps -- the gap between a tackle and a guard -- like other defensive ends would be in a regular defense. In general, this shouldn't really be a problem since outside linebackers can simply move up and fill up the gaps if need be, but that is something that is easier said than done.
The idea behind the wide nine is simple: flow everything to the middle where linebackers and defensive tackles can clean up the play. This means that outside linebackers are basically treated like defensive ends in a way since their job on many running downs is simply to plug a gap and redirect the running back to the middle/center of the field. Unfortunately, all hell breaks loose if a back or quarterback breaks the wide nine containment or if an offense finds a way to manipulate the C gaps. A perfect example of a player breaking the containment against the Lions would be Joe Webb, who rushed for 109 yards on the Lions on just seven carries in basically a half of football. The brunt of those yards came on his 65-yard run, where he got around the defensive end on the play and simply just outran the rest of the defenders.
I think overall the wide nine is a love it or hate it type of scheme. I know there are many fans and coaches that love the scheme. Personally, I think it would be a great scheme for a team that needs to maximize the amount of pass rush with a minimum amount of talent -- kind of like the Lions of '09 or even '10. But it doesn't make sense to me to play such an aggressive and risky scheme when you have a great deal of raw talent to work with on the defensive line. I don't think the Lions are going to abandon it anytime soon, but I certainly hope it doesn't cost them a playoff game in the future.