Stats are a funny thing. They can be both misleading and telling.
Take the Lions defense as an example.
Detroit – a 5-3 team -- ranks 25th in the NFL in overall defense (aka total yards per game) – 18th against the run and 25th against the pass.
To simply look at that No. 25 ranking would more than likely result in a knee-jerk response along the lines of, "Wow, they’re not that good."
To say that ranking doesn’t tell the entire story would be an understatement.
It’s no secret the Lions have allowed big plays to bite them this season.
Perhaps the most revealing stat is the 99 points the Lions have surrendered when opponents are outside the red zone. That’s good for last in the league.
Compare that with allowing only 75 points when opponents are in the red zone. That’s good for sixth in the league.
Why are they giving up big plays?
FACTOR 1: YOUTH
The Lions coaching staff was limiting the play of rookie corner Darius Slay early in the season to help ease his progression.
Injuries, however, have resulted in Slay being thrown into the fire, and he has responded well.
"Darius Slay played really well (against Dallas)," said defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.
The tough thing about being a rookie in the secondary, however, is that mistakes have a higher likelihood of turning into big plays.
Both of Slay’s mistakes on Sunday resulted in touchdowns.
One of those touchdowns was a 60-yard play by fellow rookie Terrance Williams. It was a three-step pass that Williams caught around the Dallas 40 before running the distance for the score.
It’s a play Slay should have had, said Cunningham. He just hesitated.
"As he’s breaking to the receiver, he looks back at the quarterback," said Cunningham. "In this league, if you do that, it’s a touchdown."
The good news regarding plays like that: it’s youth and inexperience – not talent – that allowed that play to happen. You can’t fix lack of talent. Inexperience, on the other hand, is corrected over time.
The other touchdown Slay surrendered was the five-yard pass to Dez Bryant. On this particular play, says Cunningham, Slay had great technique, but a minor error (and fantastic catch by Bryant) resulted in the score.
"He battled 88 and he should have won the battle, but he misaligned by half a foot, half a yard," said Cunningham.
"He lines up right and he makes that play."
FACTOR 2: TRYING TO DO TOO MUCH
Consistency at safety has been a huge contributor to the Lions’ five wins.
Against Dallas, however, Delmas got caught trying to do too much when he "went for the kill shot" and missed Bryant down the sideline.
The resulting play was a 50-yard touchdown.
"John Lynch told me a long time ago, he used to try to put 10 to 12 big hits on the screen a year," said Cunningham. "Well, people all thought he was a knockout artist, he was vicious.
"He said, ‘What a safety has to do is make the tackle.’ Lynch got the big hits, but he made the tackles. What we have done a couple of times, is we’re trying to go for a big hit and miss the tackle."
It’s all a gamble. Coaches and players being on the same page regarding when to gamble versus when to make a safe play can be corrected in the second half of the season.
FACTOR 3: SCHEME BREAKDOWNS
When asked what he wanted to do better in the second half of the season, Cunningham said, "play within the scheme."
There have been a few times this season where the Lions have broken down on defense to allow for a big play. At Green Bay, Detroit gave up a 67-yard run to Randall Cobb and an 83-yard touchdown James Jones.
"That’s something we have addressed and worked real hard on," said Cunningham.
The Lions’ defense did a fantastic job playing within the scheme this past week against Dallas. Detroit’s objective was to take Dez Bryant and Jason Witten out of the game.
Witten had two catches for 15 yards. Bryant had three catches for 72 yards.
Aside from that long touchdown, Bryant had two catches for 22 yards, including the five-yard touchdown.
"We broke down twice, but still, it was almost picture perfect," said Cunningham. "We crushed them on the run for two yards a carry. I can’t ever remember Witten catching two balls for 15 yards. That guy’s a warrior - tough, smart.
"And (Bryant), he was frustrated. We did exactly what we wanted."
THE BOTTOM LINE
Every team has its own set of circumstances that affect stats.
The good news for the Lions is that all of the big plays they are giving up are due to correctable mistakes, not lack of talent.
"It takes time to mold a team," said Cunningham. "The communication is pretty good, but trust in each other is still building and it takes time.
"It takes time for a player to develop and it takes time for scheme and the whole defensive unit to develop. What we’re doing? We’ll fight you from hell or high water. And that’s the part I like about them all."