This is the fourth year of the rebuilding plan steered by Detroit Lions GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz, and by any standard, the two men have done a very impressive job. While many would prefer that the Lions keep their heads more than they do both on and off the field, to go from the 0-16 season in 2008 that signified the nadir of the Matt Millen disaster to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth so quickly has to be seen as one of the better rehabilitative efforts in NFL history.
That said, there are still things to fix. The Lions have a great quarterback in Matthew Stafford, the league's best receiver in Calvin Johnson, and a front seven that can wreak havoc on any opposing offense. But the secondary? That's where the Lions still need help. In 2011, Detroit ranked 22nd in the league in passing yards per game allowed (239.4), 22nd in passing touchdowns allowed (26), 22nd (see a trend here?) in first-down percentage allowed through passing (32.3%), and 23rd in points allowed in the passing game (387). There were signs of improvement, though -- the Lions picked off 21 passes, tied for fourth-best in the league, and ranked fourth in Football Outsiders' offense-adjusted metrics in overall pass defense.
One must attribute a lot of those positive numbers to the pressure put on opposing quarterbacks by the Lions' sack attack. And when you're a part of the secondary that gives up six touchdowns in a season finale to Green Bay Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn, and ends your season in a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints in which Drew Brees slices and dices you for 466 yards, three touchdowns, and no picks ... well, you'd understand why most people believe that in 2012, the Lions will go only as far as their secondary takes them. The Lions seem to agree; that's why they selected three cornerbacks in the 2012 NFL draft -- Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight Bentley in the third round, Albion's Chris Greenwood in the fifth round, and New Mexico State's Jonte Green in the sixth.
However, current Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith believes that much ado is being made of very little. As he recently told Anwar Richardson of MLive.com, Smith thinks the Lions' pass defense had just two bad games in 2011.
"The last regular season game against Green Bay when Matt Flynn had a field day, which was our fault," Smith said. "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. Other than that, you can go back to the San Diego Chargers and we gave up 200 yards against them (Philip Rivers threw for 299 yards)? That was a top-notch passing attack. You had Minnesota who came in. We did solid against Oakland."
Well, that's a bit selective. Per FO's single-game metrics, the Lions had a couple of games in which they were about league-average (Kansas City, Minnesota, Carolina), and a few in which they really stepped up (Tampa Bay, Chicago, the regular-season game against the Saints), but several more in which they leaked like a BountyGate snitch. This was especially true in the second half of the season.
Smith's contention that the Lions "did solid" against Oakland doesn't really hold up -- Carson Palmer completed 32 of 40 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown, and the fact that the Saints were able to do so much better against the Lions the second time they faced them says something about the Lions' ability to adjust at this point. It's a young secondary, and things are developing, but Smith may be engaging in a bit of spin here.
"So many other teams in the league have secondaries that no one talks about. 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.
"You can't talk about the quarterback. You can't talk about the tight ends. You can't talk about the running back unit, there's like six of them. You can't talk about the receivers, Calvin (Johnson). Who you're going to talk about? So that leaves us, the DBs. You can't talk about Jason Hanson or Ben Graham. You take out those two games, and I thought we were a pretty solid group. That's just my opinion. You take out those two games, but the fact of the matter is, you can't take out those two games."
We'll see how things go in 2012. If Smith is right, and the Lions' pass defense problems are behind them, the rest of the NFC North had better watch out.