It seems like it was just yesterday. The 2016 regular season ended and the Lions defense ranked 18th in the league. Even worse, their pass rush ranked 31st. It was widely regarded as the Lions second biggest weakness outside of their horrid run game.
Now in August, just 19 days away from the start of the regular season, the Lions defense is suddenly the talk of the town for a completely different reason. That reason, of course, being the fact that they have been the highlight of the Lions’ first two preseason games.
For the millionth time this week, it’s just preseason. You can’t fully gauge how a team will perform during the regular season just based off of what they’ve done in these two meaningless games. But what they’ve done still can’t be completely ignored, and it’s oddly reminiscent of the way their defense looked in the 2014 preseason.
This defense is not the 2014 defense. I’ll say that until I’m blue in the face. But it is hard to ignore the fact that the Lions’ first-team defense has allowed just three points in the last two weeks. The team itself has allowed only one touchdown altogether, and that came in the final seconds of their win over the Colts.
That’s not all. There’s so much more to talk about here. The Lions have allowed 27 total first downs in the last two games. Only five of them came in the first half. There’s more. Of the 138 rushing yards the Lions defense has allowed in both games, only 53 of them have come in the first half against the first and second team.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing of all is the Lions pass rush. This was supposed to be a complete and utter mess to begin with. Then the Lions lost Kerry Hyder and Brandon Copeland in one fell swoop. Yet here we are two weeks in and the Lions have eight sacks already. To understand how good that is, they had 10 in all four games of the 2016 preseason. Perhaps this is why the Lions currently have the fourth ranked defense in the league... in meaningless games.
The one thing that seems to point to this success is depth. When Bob Quinn took the job in February of 2016, one of the first things he preached was depth, and more specifically, depth on defense.
Going into his second season, it would appear that he’s accomplished, or begun to accomplish just that. The Lions have put depth at every single unit.
With Akeem Spence, Cornelius Washington and a combination of rookies in Pat O’Connor, Jeremiah Valoaga and Alex Barrett, the Lions defensive line looks to be deeper than anyone could have imagined. Couple that with the usual suspects of A’Shawn Robinson, Ezekiel Ansah and Haloti Ngata, and the rise of Anthony Zettel, this line could be scary good, even after the injuries.
The linebacking corps was a hole in the middle of the field in 2016. Now it’s a hole full of young talent that can contribute right away. Jarrad Davis has already looked good in his first two games, but the guys to watch here are Antwione Williams and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, two young guys that have been making a lot of noise at training camp this summer. Lastly, the importance of having Tahir Whitehead at his natural position is going to make a big difference.
The secondary has gone from a major problem to different major problem. This time the major problem is figuring out who to keep and who to cut. Aside from the obvious Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson, it’s hard to figure out which combination of corners will be joining them.
Guys like D.J. Hayden and Teez Tabor are safe, but what about Quandre Diggs, Jamal Agnew and Johnson Bademosi? All three of those guys have made big plays in the last two games. It may not be crazy to think the Lions keep six, maybe even seven cornerbacks in 2017. All three of those guys are just too good on special teams to part with.
Depth: It’s what’s for dinner in Detroit. This is how the Lions will overcome losing Hyder and Copeland. This how the Lions will overcome losing anyone else if such a thing should happen.
One more reminder: This is just preseason. None of this could wind up equating to anything once the regular season starts. But from what we’ve seen, there’s a lot to be excited about.
One thing to consider here that could kill it all is that the Lions have faced Scott Tolzien and Christian Hackenberg. On Friday night they welcome the big dog into town. The Lions defense will get their first real test when they go up against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the “dress rehearsal game.” If they bring this same play to that game, it’s time to get uncomfortably confident in what this team may be able to do.
But still keep those expectations tempered.