1) Teryl Austin is building a championship-caliber defense.
Austin hasn't received national attention for his outstanding work with the Lions' defense, but insiders certainly respect how he has transformed the unit into a juggernaut in his first season at the helm. Detroit ranks first in total defense (283.4 yards per game) and scoring defense (15.8 points per game), while ranking second in the NFL in both rushing yards allowed (71.3 per game) and third-down conversions (32.5 percent). Although all defensive statistics aren't valued equally, the fact that the Lions excel at keeping opponents out of the end zone and winning on the "money" down (third-down defense) shows they have the components of a championship defense.
Of course, it helps that Austin inherited a unit with arguably the most talented defensive line in football. The front features three former first-round draft picks (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah) and a host of blue-collar players (C.J. Mosley, George Johnson, Jason Jones, Caraun Reid and Darryl Tapp) with relentless motors at the point of attack. The collective size, strength and athleticism of the group overwhelms most opponents; Austin taps into the group's dynamic versatility by utilizing a variety of fronts, stunts and games that allow them to exploit one-on-one battles. Each player's ability to win with speed, quickness or strength tilts the scales in the Lions' favor nearly every week, resulting in sacks or pressures in critical moments.
From a schematic standpoint, the Lions are a base 4-3 team, but Austin's experience with the 3-4 (he spent the last three seasons as the secondary coach for the Baltimore Ravens) allows him to mix in some exotic blitz looks in favorable situations. Additionally, his time as a secondary coach with Ray Rhodes in Seattle, who served as the Seahawks' defensive coordinator from 2003 to '07, taught Austin how to create a hybrid defense that could feature an "Elephant," or traditional defensive end, on the line of scrimmage. Finally, Austin's experience as a defensive coordinator on the collegiate level provided him with the opportunity to learn how to defend the zone-read concepts that have trickled into the NFL. By combining all of this knowledge, Austin has helped mold the Lions into a multiple defense capable of clogging running lanes and creating pressure on the passer.
Let's take a look at the defense at work ...
In the play depicted below, the defense is aligned in a four-man front with one-on-one coverage in the back end. Defensive end Jason Jones is assigned to blow up Ryan Tannehill on any zone-read plays, which neutralizes the quarterback running game. With the second-level defenders locked in man-to-man, the Lions still have six defenders near the box to take care of the halfback dive. The big hit on Tannehill prevents him from carrying out the fake and discourages him from running the ball. It also allows the Lions' second-level defenders to focus on running back Daniel Thomas (since the quarterback run-and-pitch is no longer an option). After pushing forward for a 2-yard gain, Thomas fumbles in the pile and Detroit recovers (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In this next play, the Lions are aligned in a double A-gap blitz look against the Dolphins' empty formation. Most defensive coordinators prefer to send six defenders against an empty formation to force the quarterback to throw the ball quickly or risk taking a big hit in the pocket. However, the Lions bluff a blitz and fall back into a three-deep zone, with safety James Ihedigbo rolling down to cover the curl/flat zone. Tannehill anticipates pressure (though no blitz comes) and releases the ball quickly, but he fails to realize Ihedigbo is reading his eyes and making a quick break to the flat. Austin's clever bluff results in a poor decision by Tannehill and an interception for the Lions(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Now, I can't discuss the Lions' rapid defensive improvement without mentioning the job Austin has done with the secondary. The defensive backfield was considered a huge liability heading into the season based on its previous struggles under Jim Schwartz, but the unit has played well in Austin's more aggressive scheme. Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay have not allowed the ball to fly over their heads, while safeties Glover Quin and Ihedigbo have essentially shut down the open windows between the hashes. Thus, opponents have been forced to "dink and dunk" the ball to tight ends and running backs instead of taking deep shots down the field. Given the challenge of moving the ball the length of the field on short passes, the Lions have been able to employ a bend-but-don't-break strategy in critical moments. This approach allows them to preserve leads at the end of games and frustrate big-armed quarterbacks (see: Aaron Rodgers) looking for home runs in the passing game.
2) A stellar receiving duo's allowing Matthew Stafford to reach his potential.
The Lions have featured one of the league's most explosive passing games since Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson joined forces in 2009. Without a credible complementary pass-catcher playing opposite the All-Pro receiver, though, defenses doubled and even triple-covered Megatron. Still, the QB-WR duo has relentlessly picked apart opponents with a barrage of short, intermediate and deep balls.
Although the one-dimensional approach has produced impressive statistical results, the lack of a credible threat on the opposite side prevented Stafford from fully utilizing the entire field in the passing game and stunted his growth as a franchise quarterback. Instead of taking what was available based on coverage, Stafford would force the ball to Johnson in traffic, leading to interceptions off tips and overthrows. The overemphasis on Johnson in the passing game, and the costly turnovers that followed, kept Stafford from developing the management skills needed to win consistently in the NFL.
Golden Tate's arrival in free agency has helped Stafford become a more complete player at the position. The fifth-year receiver is a dynamic playmaker on the perimeter, with running skills that enable him to turn short passes into big gains. It certainly helps that Tate also is one of the best jump-ball specialists in the league. He has an uncanny knack for coming down with contested throws in a crowd despite being listed at 5-foot-10. As a result, Stafford has grown increasingly comfortable throwing the ball to Tate in key situations, particularly during the three games Johnson missed this season with an ankle injury.
Tate carried the passing game during Megatron's absence, posting consecutive 150-yard games and making a number of clutch catches. The momentum didn't wane when Johnson returned to the lineup in Week 10, as Tate snagged 11 balls for 109 yards against Miami. Although most of his damage was done on an assortment of quick screens designed to get him the ball quickly on the edge, Tate also made a handful of grabs on intermediate routes between the numbers. This forced the Dolphins to divert some of their attention away from Johnson, which freed him up to make an impact down the field.
In the play below, the Lions are aligned in an I-formation with Johnson and Tate deployed in a stacked alignment. The Lions will run a quick screen to Tate to take advantage of the soft coverage on the outside. Tate receives the quick toss and runs behind Johnson's block to get to the second level of the defense. With Tate adept at working through traffic as a result of his experience as a punt returner, the Lions are able to pick up 14 yards on a simple pass to the perimeter (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
After studying Johnson's performance against the Dolphins, I still see him as a premier receiver in the game. Despite an assortment of injuries that have started to take a toll on his speed and athleticism, Megatron remains an unstoppable playmaker in space. The 6-5, 236-pound veteran has mastered the art of boxing out defenders on jump balls, and his massive pass-catching radius makes him nearly impossible to miss on in-breaking routes. Consequently, he wears out defenders on slants and digs, but still possesses the burst to win on post routes.
Against the Dolphins, he displayed his entire repertoire of skills while tallying 113 yards on seven receptions. From his terrific "cop" (post-corner-post) route on his 49-yard TD reception, to an assortment of catches on slants and digs, Johnson worked free from double coverage to get open between the numbers and used his size to come down with contested balls in traffic.
Let's take a closer look at that deep touchdown grab. As you can see just below, Detroit breaks the huddle aligned in an I-formation, with Johnson positioned on the right. He is running the cop route to take advantage of the soft coverage on the perimeter. Johnson fails to separate from Grimes, but his significant size advantage encourages Stafford to still make the throw. Despite Grimes' perfect positioning and gritty effort, Megatron comes down with the ball, highlighting the challenge of defending him down field (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With the Lions also featuring backs and tight ends capable of producing explosive plays in the passing game (Reggie Bush, Theo Riddick and Eric Ebron), Stafford simply needs to distribute the ball to the open receiver and allow him to make it happen on the perimeter. When Stafford plays within himself and avoids the big miscues that have plagued his NFL career, he is as good as any quarterback in the league and gives the Lions a chance to win against any opponent.
3) Jim Caldwell has quickly taught the Lions how to win.
The Lions enjoyed a bit of success under the previous regime, but the team grossly underachieved with one of the most talented rosters in football. The team frequently faded down the stretch and inexplicably lost a number of winnable games due to self-inflicted wounds (turnovers and penalties) in key moments.
Caldwell has quickly eradicated some of these by leaning on the tenets that helped him guide the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl appearance and a 24-8 record during his first two seasons on the job. Although he certainly benefited from the spectacular play of one of the best quarterbacks (Peyton Manning) in NFL history, Caldwell's Colts teams played a winning brand of football that typically leads to long-term success.
In Detroit, Caldwell has his players buying into a detailed approach that has resulted in fewer mistakes across the board. He assembled a veteran coaching staff full of communicative teachers who stress the importance of paying attention to the specifics. From challenging the veteran players to hold their young teammates accountable for their actions on the field and in meeting rooms, to encouraging his players to have an open dialogue with their coaches, the Lions have a professional approach that produces positive results when everyone is on the same page.
Speaking to Quin after the Lions' win over the Saints a few weeks ago, the safety stressed how the coaches were willing to accept players' input on the game plan and how those actions have built a trust that allows the team to adapt during games. Quin said the open communication between players and coaches has put more responsibility on each player to know his role and assignment, while also creating a stronger, more together locker room. Championship-caliber teams in the NFL tend to have locker rooms full of players who hold each other to a higher standard; this is exactly what's forming in Detroit, based on the feedback from players and coaches whom I've spoken with in recent weeks.
On the field, I see Caldwell's imprint on the team in the way this group performs under pressure. The head coach exhibits a composed demeanor on the sidelines and rarely appears flustered by various game circumstances. With teams taking on the personality of their coach, Detroit has performed better in challenging situations this season. The Lions are the first team since the 1994 New York Giants to score game-winning points inside two minutes to win in regulation in three straight games, which is a testament to their precise execution in the clutch. Moreover, it is the reflection of a team that is learning how to close out games and become a legitimate contender.