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Lions’ defense now about more than just the front four

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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The 5-0 Detroit Lions will have the marquee matchup of the NFL's Sunday morning when they welcome the 4-1 San Francisco 49ers to Ford Field. It's as unexpected a battle of titans as you'll see this season, but for the Lions, the really interesting part of their success is the fact that their defense is suddenly about more than just Ndamukong Suh and his buddies up front on the defensive line.

The Lions did finally get rookie defensive tackle Nick Fairley in the lineup against the Chicago Bears in their 24-13 Monday night beatdown of Jay Cutler, but even a cursory look at the game tape would tell you something that should be of great concern to the Lions' future opponents. Against the Bears, the Lions' back seven — especially linebackers and safeties — worked especially well to take away the short pass plays mandated by the pressure on Cutler. When the line had the quarterback dead to rights, it was just as much about how the Lions were able to execute precision tackling in the intermediate areas.

"I think what has happened to the defensive line, either they are blocking 20 guys on our four or the quarterback is getting the ball out," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said on Thursday. "I had a good talk with Jay Cutler after the game who — by the way, whoever thinks he is not tough is out of their minds. I was really impressed with how he kept battling us and I told him so after the game. Reminded me of when I coached against guys like (Dan) Marino and (John) Elway because the onslaught of our pass rush was unbelievable.

"I came in on (Tuesday) and looked at the tape and they had (passes in the high) 30s and 32 of (the pass plays) could be put on to show a good pass rush. So that was pretty impressive. But I think the back end played really well; we did a good job of disguising our coverages and he had a tough time of reading it. To me, and he came out and said, his clock got hurried -- meaning he had to throw the ball before it was time a lot of times. That is what we are all about: to force you to get that ball out. I think they averaged 5.5, 5.8 a throw, which is really good in pass defense."

What else was really good in pass defense was the way the Lions' pass defenders were able to take away yards after catch by bearing down on those receivers on screens and quick slants. It's the sign of a defense that's playing together, back to front. The Lions logged six tackles for loss against the Bears, and four of those came from linebackers — two from Bobby Carpenter and two from Stephen Tulloch. Fellow linebacker DeAndre Levy, who had another of those tackles for loss, led the team with nine solo takedowns. And while the linebacker position is generally a tackle magnet, it was the way those tackles happened that made the difference. You saw just as much out of cornerbacks Chris Houston and Aaron Berry and safety Louis Delmas.

"We have some real good athletes on defense," Cunningham said. "I saw it the first day when they were all on the field after the lockout ended, and the speed that we have on defense is really helping us. We make a mistake here and there but it is not as costly as it was the last couple years that I have been here. We can make up for mental errors by overcoming with a great close to the football. And I think it's pretty noticeable to everybody."

It was noticeable to Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup, who discussed that Detroit back seven  on this week's Shutdown Corner podcast. "The Lions' linebackers never get talked about, but they're very quick-reacting, and they have excellent play speed," Cosell said. "Tulloch and Levy always flash on tape — they're both field-fast — and this defense is better on that back end than people think it is. Delmas is a very good player — he can really run the alley in the run game — and he's an excellent ace defender in the box."

Where that will be tested against the 49ers is with a renewed offense that features two tight ends in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker who can be matchup nightmares for opposing defenses, especially in the ways Jim Harbaugh lines them up. "Well, I think all 11 guys better be on him," Cunningham said of the explosive Davis. "He is something. When you look at him on tape, he doesn't look like a tight end. When he starts to run his routes, it is hard to sometimes to identify who is the wide receiver and who is the tight end. He is a rare, rare athlete. He is probably the best one we have played. I don't even want to call him a tight end, because he runs like a wide receiver up the field."

That could be a challenge for a Lions defense that currently ranks 25th in Football Outsiders' defensive rankings against tight ends, but after the improved performance against the Bears, it's something the 49ers should take care to watch. For the first time in the Jim Schwartz era, that Lions' D can count higher than four.

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