By: Will Burchfield
Haloti Ngata has played on some fearsome defenses in his day.
He did not play on one last year.
The Lions, though holding opponents to a somewhat respectable 22.4 points per game, lacked a defensive pulse in 2016. They were porous against the pass, starved for turnovers and generally inept at getting off the field.
It was the rare game in which the defense could be counted on to make a play.
How does that unit improve in 2017? Ask the 11-year vet.
“We gotta be better on third down, in sacks, in stopping the run,” said Ngata, after the Lions first training camp practice on Sunday. “I guess stopping the run’s the main thing, really, because if you can’t stop the run you can’t get many sacks.”
At first glance, the Lions weren’t especially vulnerable on the ground last season. They surrendered 106.3 rushing yards per game, right around league average. But they seemed to yield a hefty chunk of that yardage on first down, setting up very attainable second- and third-down situations for the offense.
That created a web of problems on defense. For one, the Lions forced the fifth fewest third downs in the league. And when they did force third down, they stopped the offense just 46 percent of the time, the second-worst mark in the league.
It’s difficult to get off the field when constantly defending third-and-short.
This lack of third-and-long opportunities hurt the Lions in the sack department. So did Ziggy Ansah’s ankle injury, which hampered him for most of the season. Either way, the Lions recorded just 26 sacks, tied for the second fewest in the NFL.
To improve that number in 2017, Detroit will need more out of its edge rushers. Ansah was ominously placed on the physically unable to perform list to start training camp, but it’s believed to have been precautionary. He’s still in line for a bounce-back campaign.
After Ansah, though, where will the Lions’ pass rush come from? Kerry Hyder, who’s probably due for regression? Armonty Bryant, who’s suspended for the first four games of the season? Cornelius Washington, who had two sacks last season for the Bears?
It’s hard to say, and harder still to feel inspired.
Another area in which the Lions’ defense must improve in 2017 is turnovers. They generated just 14 takeaways last season (10 interceptions, four fumble recoveries), tied for the third fewest. Every other playoff team generated at least 17.
But as Ngata said, it all starts with stopping the run.