As I started to really learn football in the late '90s and early '00s, I quickly became enamored with defense. While quarterbacks like Brett Favre, Troy Aikman and a young Tom Brady dominated highlight-reel packages, I was glued to my television watching the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens and yes, even the Chicago Bears, consistently wow me. With everyone obsessed over stats and touchdowns and shootouts, I was curious and befuddled that teams could still win games 6-3 or 9-0. When I played Madden, I couldn't wait to get on defense and play middle linebacker.
Playing offense always looked easy to me. The rulebook clearly favors it, and typically the most athletic players are on that side of the ball. But what always seemed more valiant to me was being able to topple the magnanimous figures like Peyton Manning. Of course, the media would ask "What is wrong with Manning?" but I'd smile with glee knowing that the real story was how amazing the opposing defense was.
To dominate the league with your defense is to spit in the face of everything the NFL tries to be. When the Seattle Seahawks tore apart elite offenses last year, the league scrambled to harshen the rules and put an end to such nonsense. The NFL continues to fine defensive players at an unfairly disproportionate rate compared to offensive players (60 percent to 40 percent in 2014). To root for defense is to root for the underdog to beat all of the odds. Nowadays, when the NFL has such a bad public image, it feels good to stick it to the man (or robo-man).
That's why I was always so jealous of those defensive dynasties. The Detroit Lions have never had a dominant defense during my lifetime. While I was obviously endlessly enamored with Barry Sanders, inside I was praying for more Chris Spielmans and Robert Porchers in Honolulu Blue. When the Lions finally seemed to grasp the idea of an important defense by taking some defensive players early in the draft, I scrambled to buy an Ernie Sims and Louis Delmas jersey, thinking they finally saw the light. It's why I was so thrilled with the Jim Schwartz hiring and ultimately crushed after his failure.
The last time the Lions finished a season with a top-10 defense (by yardage) was 1993. The last time the Lions had a top-five defense was 1981. The 2014 Lions currently have the No. 1 defense in the NFL by yardage and points, and I can't get enough of it.
When the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford over Aaron Curry, I was pretty disappointed. I understood the importance of a franchise quarterback, but I had just seen the defense of the Steelers win the Super Bowl months before and the New York Giants win it the previous year. I wanted that.
For the next five years the mantra of the Lions was "As goes Stafford, so goes the team." And that was the truth. In Stafford's best year, the Lions went to the playoffs. In his worst, the Lions went 4-12.
But that's no longer true. Not at all. Stafford has struggled mightily in the first month and a half of this season. His passer rating is barely above Kirk Cousins, who has thrown four more interceptions than him. But the Lions are 4-2 and have completely shut down the offense of two division rivals.
The defense has not only caused havoc on the field, but they're creating panic off it. After facing the Lions, Giants fans burned Eli Manning's jersey. When the Lions held the Minnesota Vikings offense to three points on Sunday, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer started throwing his own players under the bus.
On Cordarrelle Patterson:
"He's got to do a better job of getting open. I'm tired of hearing about all of this stuff. He's the second-most targeted guy on the team, so if he wants the ball, tell him to get open."
On Teddy Bridgewater:
"Teddy made a lot of mistakes out there as well. I don't think there's anybody immune to mistakes. I don't have the magic answer."
This defense isn't just tearing offenses apart, they're starting to tear teams apart. And while we watch the offense struggle to find their identity and the Lions cycle through kickers, it only puts into perspective how heroic the Lions defense has really been through six weeks. And I can't wait to watch more.