By Will Burchfield
After the Lions surrendered 28 points and nearly 400 yards to the worst offense in the NFL on Sunday, cornerback Darius Slay was asked why Detroit’s defense hasn’t made enough plays through the first six games of the season.
“I mean, we made enough to win,” he said. “So obviously we made enough plays.”
It’s quietly becoming their trademark.
The Lions’ defense wasn’t good in Sunday’s 31-28 win over the Los Angeles Rams. And it wasn’t much better in last week’s 24-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. But on both occasions, it was great when it needed to be.
“It just shows us what we’re capable of,” said defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker. “We’ve just got to put four quarters together and we have yet to do that. I’ll take the win because the win is premium. I mean, it’s hard to win in this league, I don’t care who you’re playing.”
Against the Eagles, it was Slay who stepped up on defense. He forced a fumble late in the fourth quarter to set up the Lions’ go-ahead field goal and then sealed things with an interception on Philadelphia’s ensuing drive.
Against the Rams, it was more of a group effort.
Late in the second half of a 14-14 game, the Rams were beginning to look like “The Greatest Show On Turf.” They had scored touchdowns on each of their first two drives and now, after driving 81 yards to Detroit’s 1-yard line, they were knocking on the door of a third.
On 4th and goal with four seconds left, they decided to go for it.
Walker wasn’t having it. Nor was Stefan Charles. The two defensive tackles blew through the offensive line and took down running back Todd Gurley to prevent the Rams from taking a lead into halftime.
“That’s big, man. We won by three and we took seven points off the board for them, so it was a big play for the defense and for our team,” Walker said.
Defensive end Devin Taylor agreed.
“That’s a big push for us defensively. As a group that gives you a lot of momentum, especially going into halftime,” he said.
Out of the break, the Lions’ defense lapsed into its porous first-half ways. Los Angeles score touchdowns on two of its first three drives to take a 28-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Then everything changed.
The Lions tied things up midway through the fourth, and the defense promptly forced a three-and-out. On 3rd and five, Slay broke up a pass intended for Kenny Britt, who had been unstoppable up to that point. Slay, Detroit’s highest-paid defensive player, finally shut him down.
“Every guy is getting money out here to make plays, so of course everybody’s going to make plays,” Slay said. “But my play I made was pretty big, getting off the field on third down, three and out, and giving the offense the time to get back on the field and score.”
After the Lions took a 31-28 lead with 1:33 to go, they turned to their defense to bring home the victory. For the second week in a row, the defense delivered.
On 2nd and 6 from the Rams’ 29, safety Rafael Bush picked off the previously impeccable Case Keenum. Keenum had thrown a number of great passes up to that point, but his last one, intended for tight end Lance Kendricks, ended up in the wrong set of hands.
“The guy just came right to me and I was just like, ‘Oh, this is my play to make, here it comes. All I got to do is catch it,’” Bush recalled. “So I was fortunate enough to be in that position in that particular moment.
“Like I said, I think if anybody else had been in that position they would have done the same thing. I just made the play that came to me.”
For as casual as Bush made it seem, Slay couldn’t believe his eyes.
“I thought he didn’t have hands, I thought he couldn’t catch,” Slay laughed. “But he caught that – good play, that was great hands. I’ll tell him that.”
Prior to Week 5, the Lions had forced just one turnover on the season. They finally broke through against the Eagles, and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin commended his players for respecting the process and staying within themselves.
“If you continue to work at things hard enough and do the things the right way, the tables will turn for you,” he said on Thursday. “It’s just a matter of time, and last week it happened to be ours.”
This week, too.
“Turnovers are big in any game. For a couple of weeks we weren’t getting any turnovers and those resulted in losses,” Bush said. “Any time you can get the ball back to our high-powered offense that’s always great. Today was just in the two-minute (drill) at the end of the game, so we’re very fortunate to get those plays ay the right time. The ball is just falling our way.”
A fumble and a pick last week. A pick and a fourth-down stop this week. The Lions still have problems on defense, but at least they’re finding ways to cover them.
“Early in the first part of the season, plays like that didn’t go our way, you know what I mean?” Walker said. “Now they’re going our way.”
When the Lions needed to step up in money-time against the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers, they wound up broke. Against the Eagles and Rams, they hit the jackpot.
“Oh yeah, we’re cashing in good,” Slay said. “The DB’s definitely, the defense for sure, we’re cashing in.”
Perhaps the early-season losses are beginning to pay dividends. Or, as Austin suggested, maybe the numbers are just evening out. Either way, Jim Caldwell was pleased with how his defense performed in a number of critical moments on Sunday.
“I’m proud of them, they played extremely well,” he said. “That stop just before the half was key. At the end of the game, they just don’t back down from tight situations like that. I think we’ve gotten to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
“It wasn’t pretty, but they did a really nice job.”
It’s rarely pretty for the Lions defense, but they’ve shown becoming flashes of late. And they’re back to .500 because of it, with their goals still before them.
“At the end of the day when you get a win, you get a win,” Taylor said. “Sometimes it’s going to be ugly when you get it, but either way, it still goes in the win column.”