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Charting the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Lions Defense

Cleveland Browns v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Yesterday, I took a look at some of the player vs. player and position vs. position matchups where either side of the Jets-Lions matchup could have a sizable advantage. Today, let’s look into the 2017 Lions in more depth and learn about where they thrived and struggled last season.


  • All rankings are according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted value over average), an ultimate one-number efficiency metric that includes penalties, situations, and opponent strength among other factors to capture true total efficiency.

Here is a look at the 2017 Detroit pass defense broken down by matchup.

The clear strength for Detroit was their ability to stop opposing top wide receivers. The obvious reason for that? Darius Slay. Slay has evolved into a top corner in the league. He led the league in interceptions last year with 8, and was ranked as Pro Football Focus’ #16 cornerback. His length and physicality allow him to match up very well with the types of receivers he faces outside. I think Robby Anderson is in for a tough night - but it is also an opportunity for him to prove he can round out his game and be an every-week threat.

Detroit struggled a bit handling the rest of the wide receivers they faced. #2 outside corner Nevin Lawson struggled last season, and at only 5’9 could be a mismatch against the basketball lineup that is the Jets wide receiver core.

Here is a look at the Lions’ pass defense based on pass direction and depth. Short passes are categorized as less than 15 yards through the air, deep passes 15 yards or more through the air.

Detroit excelled defending the deep portion of the field on the right side. The Lions allowed only 1 deep right touchdown and allowed only a 24% first down rate on targets in that portion of the field - second best in the league. This could be significant since the deep right portion of the field was the Jets’ best friend in the pass game last year. Through the prolific combination of Robby Anderson and Josh McCown, the Jets led the league with 10 deep right touchdowns and ranked second with a 53% first down rate on those targets. It’s possible that Anderson will not have the same rapport with Darnold, but nevertheless, it is worth noting that the Jets’ greatest offensive strength last year is matched by one of Detroit’s greatest defensive strengths.


Here is a look at the Lions’ rush defense in 2017 based on adjusted line yards (yards per attempt adjusted to assign responsibility to the offensive line) allowed by rush direction. These numbers are from the offensive perspective - so a left end rush listed below would be directed towards the right side of the defense.

The Lions struggled most defending the run game between the A gaps. Detroit allowed 4.36 yards per carry (5th-worst) and a 26.7% first down rate (3rd-worst) on those carries last year.

This could be a good opportunity for Isaiah Crowell. I mentioned in yesterday’s piece that Bilal Powell was among the league’s most efficient rushers outside of the tackles last season - the opposite is true for Crowell. He ranked 4th in the league in rushing yards directed between the guards, with 616, picking up 4.6 yards per carry, 3rd best among the top 40 running backs in middle carries.

How do you think the Jets should attack the Lions defense?