The NFL is a passing league. If you haven't heard that before, then you are probably not a big pro football fan. It has become so pervasive that we are starting to revise our expectations of what a good passing quarterback can accomplish in the NFL. We all witnessed how many quarterbacks exceeded or approached 5,000 yards passing last season.
When the majority of the yardage that is gained by an offense is done through the air, it is important for your defense to do a good job against the pass. With three games in the books, it is now becoming possible to get some meaningful statistics about the performance of the Lions passing defense. I will use the statistics from NFL.com, as well as from Football Outsiders, for this analysis. I will refer to statistics from Pro Football Focus in only general terms since you must subscribe to that site in order to access the pertinent statistics.
Let's start by looking at the rankings of the Lions pass defense, according to the three different sites.
According to NFL.com, the Lions rank 20th in average passing yardage surrendered at 250 yards per game. The Green Bay Packers are first with only 137 yards given up per game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are last with 353 yards per game surrendered.
On first glance you can see that the Lions are just slightly below average in giving up passing yardage. Of course, we need a lot more investigation and context before we can fully understand how the Lions pass defense is performing. Passing yardage really tells very little about performance and how the defense is contributing to wins.
The Lions give up an average of 8.2 yards per pass completion, ranking 25th in the NFL. Since the Lions allow a pass to be completed 67.3 percent of the time, it is clear that the Lions are letting teams move the chains very well through the passing game.
Before you say that long passes are skewing the figures, bear in mind that the Lions are tied for fifth in the NFL with only seven passes allowed over 20 yards in three games. That is only slightly more than two big pass plays per game. The problem is that four of those seven passes went for more than 40 yards each, which ranks No. 19 in the NFL. So the Lions don't give up many long passes, but when they do, they tend to be really long.
The problem with the NFL.com statistics is that they are often very misleading. It requires some additional information to put a context on them. I will go to the statistics at Football Outsiders to get my context.
There are a lot of players on the field that can catch the football. You may be tempted to point fingers at the cornerbacks in the Lions defense to explain the reason that the Lions rank below average. The Lions have suffered a lot of injuries at the position. Rookies and backups have been forced to play in critical situations.
The Football Outsiders statistics show that the Lions do an acceptable job against the top two receivers on the opposing team. They rank the Lions at No. 14 in the NFL against the top receiver on each team and No. 11 against the second receiver. The Lions have also done well against passes to running backs and rank No. 12 in the NFL. Where the Lions have struggled is against the third receiver, where they rank No. 25, and they are the worst in the NFL against tight ends.
Those statistics tell us something very important. The real problem with the Lions passing defense actually has had less to do with the outside cornerbacks than we might assume. The third receiver usually lines up in the slot and they will normally be covered by the nickelback or a safety. Tight ends are usually covered by a safety or a linebacker.
The Lions cornerbacks are relatively young and they will get better. We can also hope that the injuries to the corners slow down and allow the unit to gain some coherence. Despite the challenges, the cornerbacks have generally played well except for a few explosion plays. Most of the problems at cornerback can be resolved by teaching them to turn and look for the ball.
The biggest problem for the Lions pass defense is a fast tight end, like Vernon Davis. This type of tight end is becoming more common in the NFL, and the Lions are behind the curve in defending it. The linebackers do not have the speed and agility to cover a fast tight end and the safeties are often too small to win the physical battles against them.
The Lions can expect some improvement at safety when Louis Delmas returns, but that is never a sure thing. Delmas cannot seem to stay healthy and it is becoming increasingly hard to count on his production. It is becoming clear that the Lions will be looking to upgrade at the safety position next offseason.
We were told by the coaches that the Lions drafted linebacker Tahir Whitehead specifically because he does a good job against tight ends. Hopefully he will develop well and see more playing time in the future. At least we know that the coaches recognize the problem since they drafted a player specifically to address it. Justin Durant played well against the pass last season, but he appears to have reverted to his previous struggles in pass defense this year. The Lions need to find a really fast linebacker that can cover the tight end at some point.
Barring a strong season from Delmas when he returns, the Lions will probably continue to struggle against short passes and passes in the slot, especially to tight ends. Hopefully we will not see the Lions continue to allow opposing offenses to convert first downs at will and march down the field for scores. We can also lay part of the blame for this problem at the feet of the pass rush, but that is a subject for a different article.