With defense putting up league-best numbers, Lions eye return to playoffs
"I thought the offense was going to have to carry the team," Tate says.
"That's not the case at all."
Not even close. During their 4-2 start, the Lions have averaged just 19.3 points per game -- only the Titans, Vikings, Jets, Raiders and Jaguars have worse marks. Two of their 14 touchdowns through six games have come courtesy of a Detroit defense that ranks No. 1 in the league.
That defense has made a stunning breakthrough in its first year under head coach Jim Caldwell and coordinator Teryl Austin. In fact, the defense has been so remarkable that Tate declared earlier this week that it could be as dominant as his former teammates in Seattle were last season.
It might be a little too early for that comparison, and Tate admitted as much. Still, the transformation of Detroit's defense from an underachieving, middle-of-the-road group to a perception-changing unit has been a leading storyline of the NFL season.
"I'm not surprised at all. Not with the talent we have," says linebacker Ashlee Palmer, a Lion since 2010. "The talent we have on defense, we have no choice but to be a top-ranked defense."
As Tate speaks before practice Wednesday, safety James Ihedigbo is standing in front of his locker across the room, answering questions about an upcoming matchup with the Saints. He and Tate are wearing matching black shirts.
On the front, just above the heart, a "Made in Detroit" crest features the Lions' logo. It is encircled by these words:
I CAN I WILL GIVE MORE
For Tate and other members of the offense, that mantra neatly captures their frustration over a slow start to the season. For the defense, those six words could sum up decades of history.
The Lions have not finished with the league's top-ranked defense since 1965; they haven't even sniffed the top 10 in points allowed since 1997. During a recent three-year stretch from 2007-09 (which included an 0-16 campaign), Detroit finished dead last every single season in points and yards allowed.
Forget a No. 1 ranking. At that point, the Lions would have settled on being average -- respectable, rather than a laughingstock.
Suffice it to say, the tone this season has changed.
"We want to take the next step," Ihedigbo says. "We were locked in last week [a 17-3 win in Minnesota], but that was last week. Can we put two weeks together, can we continue to take this to the next level?"
That journey began in earnest when the Lions selected Ndamukong Suh at No. 2 overall in the 2010 draft. Nick Fairley arrived the following year, joined by Ziggy Ansah and Darius Slay in 2013 and then Kyle Van Noy (who has yet to play due to injury) this past May.
The most important addition of all, though, may have come in the hiring of Teryl Austin. An assistant coach with the Ravens from 2011-13, Austin arrived in Detroit with all of one prior year as a defensive coordinator at any level under his belt -- with Florida in 2010.
"I think Teryl and the rest of the staff have done a great job being able to get them to understand and absorb the information in regard to the scheme," Caldwell remarked this week.
"[Austin] is wonderful, a great coach, man," Palmer says. "You couldn't tell this is his first year as a defensive coordinator. He doesn't yell. He coaches, he teaches."
He also has shown a knack, at least so far, for maximizing the Lions' individual talent. Sure, it's nice to have Suh, Fairley and DeAndre Levy as building blocks. But Austin has coaxed critical improvements out of far lesser-known quantities like Tahir Whitehead (the replacement for an injured Stephen Tulloch at linebacker) and George Johnson.
Depth often can be as important as talent in the NFL. This is about as deep as the Lions' defense has been in recent memory.
"Guys coming in from everywhere," Palmer says. "Put the guys in, they want to make the play. They come out, next guy comes in. When you pull a guy off the field, it makes him want to go in even more, even if he's a little winded or gassed.
"He comes off, sees the next guy make a play and thinks, 'Hey! That's my play!'"
There have been plenty of plays to go around.
Leading by 14 points last Sunday in Minnesota, the Lions punted to the Vikings with 3:13 left to play. On the ensuing drive, Johnson sacked Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Two plays later, on a fourth-and-9, Ansah did the same.
One final, desperation possession for the Vikings began at the 1:52 mark, and Suh secured yet another sack.
All told, Detroit dropped Bridgewater eight times in its 14-point victory. While the Minnesota offensive line served as co-conspirator in those results, the Lions took their road win -- with Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush sidelined by injury -- as further proof that this defense is more than merely a lights-out front four.
"We play as a team defense," safety Glover Quin says. "Yeah, we had eight sacks, but [Bridgewater] had nowhere to throw the ball. Obviously, if his receivers are wide open, we don't have eight sacks. That's why great defense goes hand in hand."
Cynics remain, understandably, given the Lions' defensive history.
Meetings over the next two weekends with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will offer a more concrete assessment of Detroit's potential. Countering Bridgewater in his second NFL start is nothing compared to facing the Saints' potent offense.
This stretch is a chance for the Lions' defense to make a statement. That is, if they cared about such things.
"That doesn't matter to us, what people say outside doesn't matter to us," Ihedigbo says. "That's for you guys to write. We already know in our room what type of men we have, our mindset and what our goals are."
"I don't know if we need credibility," adds Suh, who -- along with Fairley -- may bolt as a free agent once this year ends. "As long as that's translating into wins and not allowing teams to put up points on us, we're good to go."
Oh, right. Wins. Let's not forget that pesky proposition. The Lions are 4-2 and tied atop the NFC North, yet they easily could be 5-1 had they not let a home game against Buffalo slip from their grasp.
A faltering, depleted offense and the absolute meltdown of kicker Alex Henery (since released) loomed large in that Week 5 setback. The defense, however, also allowed Kyle Orton to lead a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that culminated with a game-tying two-point conversion.
That is the "next level" of which Ihedigbo speaks. The defensive line has been imposing for years. And there is enough talent, young and old, in the linebacking corps and secondary to hold down the fort.
Maintaining that No. 1 ranking and, more importantly, getting to the postseason are different challenges altogether.
"Over the last couple years, we've had good defenses," Palmer says, "but we just haven't been the type of defense to stop ... we've always given up that one play to let us down.
"This year, we're stopping offenses from doing what they want."
The Lions, top to bottom, believe their offense will click into gear sooner rather than later. The talent level is off the charts when everyone is healthy: Johnson, Bush, Joique Bell, Tate, a cavalcade of tight ends and Stafford, for as inconsistent as he can be from game to game. Eventually, it stands to reason, the points will come in bunches.
Can the defense keep up its present pace until that happens?
Maybe not. Just don't be taken aback if it does.
"One thing I did not know," Tate says, "was that our defense was going to be as dominant as they are."