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Huddle Up: Success of Lions' secondary boils down to performance in the clutch

The Packers scored six touchdowns through the air against the Lions in Week 17 last season. (Getty Images)

Throughout the NFL's lengthy offseason, "Huddle Up" will provide you with a quick take on an important story or development from around the league ...

The Detroit Lions trailed the New Orleans Saints, 17-14, in the third quarter of a wild-card round playoff game last season when Drew Brees dropped to throw on a 2nd-and-1 from his own 38 and hit cornerback Eric Wright in the hands.

Wright, had he reeled in the errant pass, had a clear path to the end zone for a pick-6. Instead, with Robert Meachem doing his best to play defense, Wright dropped the ball and, six plays later, the Saints marched in for a touchdown.

In the fourth quarter of that same game, after Detroit had pulled within 24-21, Aaron Berry had a clean shot to pick off a 3rd-and-2 Brees pass. Like Wright, Berry was unable to come up with a turnover. On the next snap, New Orleans converted on a 4th-and-2, then Darren Sproles capped off that drive with a 17-yard touchdown run.

That was pretty much the story of the game for the Lions and, to a lesser extent, one of the underlying themes of the season. The pass defense wasn't quite as bad as everyone made it out to be, but when the Lions needed a big play late, the results often did not come.

Alphonso Smith, who had three interceptions for Detroit last year, begs to differ:

"The fact of the matter is you had two bad games," Smith said. "The last regular season game against Green Bay when Matt Flynn had a field day, which was our fault. You can't really fault anyone for the criticism of that. Then you had arguably the best quarterback in the league last year (Brees) who lit us up in the playoffs.

...

"So many other teams in the league have secondaries that no one talks about," Smith said. "We were in front of them in every category, but when you have defensive lineman like we do, one of the best in the league; the three linebackers that we had last year, one of the best units in the league. That only leaves one position."

To Smith's point, if you take out the 469 yards Matt Flynn and Green Bay racked up through the air vs. Detroit in Week 17, the Lions' per-game yards allowed average drops to 224 -- or 13th best in the league.

Of course, ignoring that game would be doing a Flynn-justice (patent pending) to Detroit's overall performance in the defensive backfield. All throughout that 45-41 loss to the Packers, the Lions needed one key play from its secondary and never got it.

That's the same thing that happened in Week 6, when the Lions allowed just 111 yards passing to San Francisco but couldn't prevent a 4th-and-goal touchdown in the dying minutes; and in Week 7, when Detroit held Matt Ryan to 199 yards but was called for two critical penalties on passing plays in the fourth quarter; in a Thanksgiving Day loss against Green Bay; and that playoff game.

You get the point.

Which is: The Lions were not quite as bad against the pass as guys like Brees made them seem -- their 21 interceptions were fifth-most in the league, for example -- but a lack of clutch play helped keep Detroit from being an even bigger story last season.

As we covered in the Lions' Offseason Breakdown, the franchise hasn't gone out of its way to address the secondary's depth, so maybe GM Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz are on board with what Smith is saying. Detroit let Wright walk in free agency this summer, signed Jacob Lacey away from the Colts, then drafted three cornerbacks in the mid-to-late rounds.

The internal belief, as evidence by Smith's assessment of last season, appears to be that the secondary is solid enough to get by, especially with an imposing defensive line and decent linebacking corps in front of it.

The Lions' secondary does not appear to be good enough, though, to let game-changing opportunities slip through its fingers -- as was the case far too frequently in 2011.
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