Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell had a go-to phrase when he was asked during minicamp about the balance between being aggressive on defense and still limiting big mistakes.
"We play smart, not scared,” Caldwell said. “You’ve got to be aggressive and this is an aggressive game, but you also have to take calculated risks as well.
“You just don’t want to be overly-aggressive where it creates problems. We want to play smart. We certainly don’t want to play scared. We’re going to make some aggressive mistakes along the way.”
Limiting the big mistakes is one of the keys for increased success on that side of the football this year for Detroit.
The Lions gave up 14 pass plays of 40-plus yards last year and five rushes of 50-plus yards. Not all of those were a byproduct of being too aggressive, obviously. Some were mental mistakes, physical mistakes or simply being beaten by a better player, but the good defenses in this league limit the big mistakes.
For a team that played in 15 close games in the fourth quarter last season, the frequency of the quick strike had a damaging impact.
The defense allowed 71 scoring drives last year -- eighth most in NFL -- but it took teams an average of just 6.77 plays and two minutes and 47 seconds to score, both the lowest totals in the NFL, according to STATS, LLC
“I think the way you become a game-changing defense is you cut down on the amount of big plays because those are demoralizing to your defense,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin admitted. “You try to create some more turnovers. I know that’s an area that we weren’t as good as we want to be.”
The Lions created just 22 turnovers last year, and Austin has emphasized intercepting the football and stripping runners this spring, but not if it means getting out of position or opening the defense up to big plays."I would hope we’re aggressive, smart and that we’re defensively going to make some plays on the ball, but keep the ball in front of us," he said. "Not let the ball get out in the run or the pass. I know it’s going to happen because it’s the NFL, but cut those things down and keep them to a minimum."
Creating more turnovers, increasing the sack totals and limiting the big plays are the three most pressing areas Austin needed to address this offseason.
It’s why the two biggest additions to the defense were a playmaking linebacker in Kyle Van Noy and a smart, veteran safety in James Ihedigbo.
Opponents scored 74 points in fewer than four plays against the Lions last year. That was the third highest total in the NFL. The league average was 46 and the average among the 12 playoff teams was 34. The Lions also allowed 187 points outside of the red zone, the most in the league.
Austin is banking that having a healthy Glover Quin at free safety and Ihedigbo at strong, along with playing a lot more man coverage, will help limit the big plays.