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The Lions’ defensive turnaround is for real

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They may not be great, but they sure are improved.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When the Detroit Lions went on their unbelievable streak of comeback wins, many doubters—myself included—wondered if that sort of success was sustainable. Chief among our worries was the status of the Lions defense. Despite coming away with the win, the Lions defense was allowing any and all quarterbacks to light up the stat sheet. No matter how well the Lions offense played, the worry was that the defense would fail to keep the opponent out of the game.

But the narrative has slowly changed. As the season went on, the opponent's point totals started to plummet. Some questioned whether this was a true improvement or just the result of facing poor offenses. While that was a legit concern over the past month, Sunday’s performance against the Saints solidified any doubt: This defense is improving, and there’s absolutely no denying it.

Look no further than any of your favorite statistics:

Points allowed Pass Yds Rush Yds Yards/Play Passer Rating Turnovers 3rd down coversions
Week 1 @ IND 35 368 82 6.6 119.5 0 9 of 16
Week 2 vs. TEN 16 224 139 6.0 102.8 1 5 of 12
Week 3 @ GB 34 201 123 6.5 112.3 0 5 of 10
Week 4 @ CHI 17 294 114 6.1 120.1 0 5 of 13
Week 5 vs. PHI 24 230 116 6.1 102.8 2 5 of 11
Week 6 vs. LA 28 311 76 7.0 126.7 1 6 of 9
AVERAGE 25.7 271.3 108.3 6.4 114.0 0.7 49.3%
Points allowed Pass Yds Rush Yds Yards/Play Passer Rating Turnovers 3rd down coversions
Week 7 vs. WAS 17 283 130 5.9 106.9 2 9 of 15
Week 8 @ HOU 20 164 105 4.3 83.4 1 6 of 15
Week 9 @ MIN 16 259 78 6.2 103.4 0 6 of 14
Week 11 vs. JAX 19 202 83 4.6 73.8 3 4 of 14
Week 12 vs. MIN 13 224 82 5.8 80.6 1 2 of 10
Week 13 @ NO 13 319 50 6.5 63.3 3 6 for 13
AVERAGE 16.3 241.8 88.0 5.6 85.2 1.7 40.7%

The Lions are giving up 9.4 fewer points per game over the past six weeks, but the improvement hasn’t stopped there. Yardage is way down, yards per play is almost a full yard down, and most dramatically, passer rating is down nearly 30 points.

So why the big turnaround? First, lets look at the strength of opposing offenses argument. Here’s a look:

While it is clear the Lions faced some worse offenses in the second half of the season, the difference isn’t all that much. The Lions met some bad offenses in Chicago, Philly and Los Angeles earlier in the year, and didn’t have an answer for them. Against, Minnesota, Jacksonville and New Orleans, they did.

And just in case you still weren’t a believer in the improvement, even advanced statistics are starting to believe. Football Outsiders devoted an entire column to the Lions’ defensive improvement—which I highly recommend reading—and perhaps most shocking was their look at the DVOA split from the first six games to the last six.

[Editor’s note: Negative DVOA numbers denote a better performance on defense]

2016 Detroit Defensive DVOA by Week

Weeks 1-6: Pass D: 54.4%; Run D: -0.3% Total D: 32.1%
Weeks 7-12: Pass D: 9.4%; Run D: -4.3% Total D: 2.8%

The Lions may still rank 31st in team defense according to DVOA for the season, but that’s clearly just because of how bad the defense was over the course of the first six games. In the past six weeks, the Lions defense has risen to an average level.

So what changed? Well, the last two columns in our first chart show a good reason for the defensive turnaround. Part of the reason for that is the defensive playmakers on the Lions. Detroit is now averaging one more turnover per game. In fact, they have at least one turnover in seven of their past eight games despite only tallying one in their first four games.

Additionally, the Lions have been a lot better on third down as of late. We’ve talked before about the Lions’ special safety heavy formation featuring Miles Killebrew used primarily on third downs, and it appears that is doing a good job masking some linebacker deficiencies. The Lions are allowing third down conversions just 40.7 percent of the time as compared to 49.3 percent.

The Lions defense still may not be great, but they are undoubtedly improved. Earlier in the year, fans were clamoring, “If the Lions defense could even just be average, this team could go somewhere.” Guess what? They’re there, and this team actually looks like it could actually contend right now.