More than meets the eye: splash plays have resulted in unfavorable stats against the run

Posted Nov 10, 2011

Just three years ago, Detroit sat at the bottom of the NFL rankings for most defensive categories. Now, in their third year under Head Coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions have one of the more feared defenses in the league.

Ranked 10th overall in the NFL and fueled by their front four, the Lions have struggled with one aspect of their defense: consistency against the run.

Detroit is 28th in the NFL when it comes to run defense, though the statistics are somewhat misleading. The Lions have given up more than half of their rushing yards (574) on just 25 of their opponents' run plays, surrendering an average of 22.96 yards per carry. Compare that with the 2.84 yards per carry average for the other 185 plays and there is a clear discrepancy of effectiveness.

"The stats are misleading, but I think the teams that play us know that we play decent run defense," said defensive end Cliff Avril. "But they are also probably thinking that if they keep pounding, keep pounding, we will give one up. That's why we need to be more consistent."

While that consistency has been tough to come by, the Lions are 6-2, showing that their defense as a whole has been effective. In fact, the Lions have the top-ranked pass defense in the NFC and are tied for first in the NFL when it comes to giving up splash plays in the passing game.

Perhaps it can be looked at as a trade-off. Detroit's front four is a pursue-first group. The way the Lions' defensive scheme is set up, the front plays the run on the way to the quarterback. Getting to the quarterback is No. 1.

That correlates with having a strong pass defense. If the quarterback is under pressure, he will have a tougher time completing passes.

"I think we're a collective unit in the passing game," said defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. "The secondary has been doing an excellent job covering, which has allowed us to get sacks, and the quarterback doesn't have open receivers right off the bat to throw to. We've been getting there in a timely fashion. It's something that we work together on."

With the front four in pursuit of the quarterback, the hat is on the linebackers, so to speak. This is why the additions of linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant have been so integral in Detroit's defensive success this season. They and fellow starter DeAndre Levy play downhill and have great vision, freeing the defensive front to worry about getting to the quarterback.

Despite being better than a year ago, though, the linebackers don't think they're playing good enough because of the big run plays that have been allowed this season.

"It's not even the scheme," said Durant. "It is just somebody not doing their assignment, that's all it is. It's not even a hard thing to correct. That's why we know over these next games we are going to get that handled."

The Lions definitely want it to be handled this week as they prepare for running back Matt Forte and the Bears.

Detroit allowed runs of 23, 19, 16 and 14 yards in the team's first match-up at Ford Field. Three of the four runs came in the second quarter and led to 10 total points, showing that the splash plays can be damaging.

"He is more of their offense now," said Avril. "We have to stop him from every aspect - from the run to the pass. We have a great chance of winning if we do that."