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O'HARA: Lions' defense enters offseason with solid base, room to grow

It had to be encouraging for Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni that general manager Bob Quinn's comments at the Season Ticket Member Summit backed up what Quinn had said in his postseason press conference about the need to add playmakers.

Playmakers get sacks, create turnovers – interceptions caused by bad throws under pressure and fumbles – and disrupt offenses in general.

The Lions need to add all of that to a defense that progressed more than any of the team's units from the start of the 2018 season to the end. It was ranked 19th overall and 30th against the run after a Week 1 loss to the Jets. At the end of the season it had climbed to 10th overall, 10th against the run and eighth against the pass.

Those statistics indicate how Pasqualoni's unit will go into the 2019 offseason with a solid base, but with room for growth.

The defensive line – bolstered by the acquisition of tackle Damon Harrison in a trade after Week 5 – was a key to the improvement. The development of middle linebacker Jarrad Davis in his second season and improved tackling were among the other factors.

"The defensive line was kind of setting the tempo," Pasqualoni said. "We became a better tackling team. That had a lot to do with how we got better gradually."

Two areas that need upgrading are generating turnovers and adding a premier edge pass rusher who commands double-team attention on a consistent basis.

Although the Lions had a respectable 43 sacks for a four-way tie with the Ravens, Texans and Seahawks – all playoff teams – they did not have an individual with double-digit sacks. Romeo Okwara led with 7.5 sacks. They had only 14 takeaways, with seven interceptions, which ranked 31st in both categories.

As Quinn explained at the Summit in response to a fan's question, playmakers on defense create sacks and takeaways.

"When you look back at the stats and how the defense played, we didn't turn the ball over as much as we would have liked," Quinn said. "We're making sure we're taking a close look at the game-changing plays of the guys we're looking at in free agency and the draft.

"We want more players who take the ball away."

He'll have an opportunity to do that when free agency begins in March, and in April, where Quinn is armed with the eighth pick overall in a draft that is regarded as deep in defensive prospects.

The Lions felt the impact of turnovers – good and bad – throughout the 2018 season. Some examples:

The good: Two sacks and an interception in a Week 3 win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots; four sacks and two fumble recoveries in a win over the Packers Week 5; an interception return for a touchdown by Darius Slay in a Week 14 win over the Cardinals.

The bad: Four interceptions, one of them returned for a touchdown, in a Week 1 loss to the Jets; an interception return for the go-ahead TD in a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Bears; a fourth-quarter sack and lost fumble that led to a touchdown to break open a close game in a Week 13 loss to the Rams.

The close call: A sack and forced fumble by rookie defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand in the last two minutes of a Week 4 loss at Dallas. A recovery by the Lions would have clinched a 24-23 win, but Cowboys QB Dak Prescott recovered and continued the possession to the game-winning field goal.

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