It's early, but Lions' secondary showing major signs of improvement

Posted Jul 30, 2013

Matthew Stafford says he and the offense are benefiting from an improved secondary

There have been times in past Detroit Lions training camps when the offense could go entire periods without the football even hitting the ground. It was just a given that the talent on that side of the ball in the passing game was a step ahead.

Martin Mayhew, Jim Schwartz

Through the first five practices this season, though, there's a noticeable difference in the amount of passes that are being tipped or landing incomplete.

"I think it's one of, if not thee, most talented backends that's been here since I've been here," quarterback Matthew Stafford said Tuesday about the Lions' revamped secondary. "The scheme has changed a little bit. We used to play straight zone and if you're playing zone we (as an offense) should complete a lot of balls.

"We're mixing in man coverage and match coverages and things like that to make it a more contested throw-and-catch. We have the talent to do that now and it's fun going against them now. It's a big challenge."

That's not only good for the Lions defense, but it's also beneficial for the progression of Stafford and the receivers. Competition breeds success and Stafford says he and the offense are benefiting from an improved secondary.

"We have a lot of guys who are savvy guys that have a knack for playing the position and it's a good test for us," he said.

That's certainly a 180-degree change from the norm around here over the last five seasons, when the Lions struggled against talented passing schemes. From 2009 to 2012, the defense never ranked better than 14th in the league in passing yards allowed per game.

The lack of turnovers particularly hurt the defense last year. The Lions were minus-16 on that front and accumulated only 11 interceptions (10 from the secondary).

The nature of the salary cap doesn't allow every part of a football team to be addressed like coaches and general managers would like. That's just the nature of the salary cap and it's that way with every team. But the Lions identified the secondary as one unit that needed to get better heading into the offseason if this team was going to get better and spent resources to fix it.

They signed safety Glover Quin to a five-year $23.5 million deal. They made it a priority to re-sign their most consistent cornerback in Chris Houston to a five-year, $25 million deal. The team went out and spent the No. 36-overall pick on cornerback Darius Slay.

Add the re-signing of safety Louis Delmas and the return of cornerback Bill Bentley off injury, and the Lions can finally be optimistic about the unit for a change.

During a 7-on-7 period Tuesday, the Lions started Delmas and Quin at safety, Houston and Slay at cornerback and Bentley in the nickel. That might just be the starting secondary Week 1 vs. Minnesota if everything goes right.

"Healthy, this is the best group of corners we've had," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said. "We still have a long way to go. They have to prove it over a period of time. We have seen some good flashes from some young players like Slay and Bill Bentley, but the proof is going to be over the course of time."

It certainly is, but it's noticeable early on in training camp that the unit is longer, faster and on these receivers' hip pockets more.

"You can tell the competitiveness is in each and every one of us," Houston said. "Even from the rookie Slay. Bill (Bentley) knows what his weaknesses were last year and he's worked on them nd he's more confident. Jonte (Green), Chris Greenwood, we're getting that chemistry and that's what you need in the secondary."

How good this unit can be will depend on a number of factors, health being the biggest, but the number of tipped passes and incompletions early on in training camp is a good break from the norm.

"We do have a lot more talent back there. I can say that," receiver Calvin Johnson said. "They've been doing a great job of getting in the way and trying to cause some of those incompletions."