By: Will Burchfield
Hardly anyone saw this coming.
The Lions are 3-1 and their defense is to thank.
Even more improbably, that defense, which is holding opponents to 17.5 points per game, has been fueled by turnovers.
After nabbing just 14 takeaways last season, the Lions already have 11 through four games, tied for the most in the league. Jim Caldwell doesn’t believe turnovers are contagious — “I’ve certainly never seen that kind of virus going around a locker room,” he smiled — but it looks like the Lions’ defense has caught the bug.
Patient zero? That would be Glover Quin, with two interceptions, including a pick-six, and two forced fumbles through four games.
The Lions are on pace for 44 takeaways, and no team has surpassed that number since the Chargers produced 48 in 2007. Is it sustainable?
“It would be bad to say no, obviously. We’ll assume and hope that every time we go out to play we can turn the ball over,” said Quin. “That’s our job as a defense, to get stops and get the ball back to our offense by any means necessary. We pride on ourselves on tackling the football, and when the ball is in the air we pride ourselves on getting it. If we continue to work on those things and work that way, we should be able to keep it up.”
Caldwell said the Lions made turnovers a particular point of emphasis entering this season. During team drills in training camp, for example, they instituted a rule that after every play the ball-carrier had to run the ball back to a practice manager as defensive players tried to knock it loose. Every defensive player had to lay a hand on the ball-carrier — or they’d hear about it from a coach.
“It gets us in the mindset that we’re trying to get (the ball) out,” Caldwell said.
The coaching staff also set up circuit training for the defensive players, with each station geared toward takeaways.
“There’s an old Bo Schembechler term. I think he used to always say, ‘You achieve what you emphasize.’ And in this particular case we gave it a little bit more emphasis, and hopefully it’ll pay off for us for the entire year,” said Caldwell.
How much of that practice work is responsible for the team’s surge in takeaways is hard to say. But it’s clear the Lions have also benefited from some good fortune. They’ve recovered four of six fumbles, which is due to happenstance more than skill, and they’ve been gifted at least two interceptions thanks to tipped passes by opposing receivers.
With seven picks through four games, the Lions, who collected just 10 all of last season, are on pace for the highest total since the Packers collected 31 in 2011.
“That’s our job. I don’t take anything for a fluke,” said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. “There’s lot of plays when you say pick like we didn’t deserve it. We deserved it. Bottom line. If we get an interception, it’s because we’re running to the ball. We’re in the right spots. I won’t ever qualify any turnover as something they (the other team) did. It’s something we did.”
Caldwell referred to it as “the law of averages,” an ironic choice of words given the regression that may be in order.
“Usually the more people that you have around the ball when the ball is loose, the better off your chances are at getting it. If you got guys hustling, tipped balls don’t typically hit the ground in this league. If people are moving in the right direction at the right speed, then we should be able to get our fair share of them,” Caldwell said.
All true. But surely the Lions were employing these tactics a year ago, when turnovers were like water in the desert. A few new drills in practice cannot account for the sudden oasis.
The Lions’ takeaway-happy defense, while certainly a credit to player development, is mostly a product of good fortune and statistical whims. Can they maintain their pace of 28 interceptions and 44 takeaways? Perhaps, and unsuspecting teams have defied the odds before, but in all likelihood regression to the mean will take over.
“We’ll keep going until something does change,” said Austin. “But I think we got a chance to be a pretty good defense. We just have to continue to improve each week.”
Aside from their knack for takeaways, the Lions have otherwise fielded an average defense. They’re in the middle of the pack when it comes to yards against, first downs against and sacks. If and when the well of turnovers runs dry, is there reason to believe the defense can still perform at a high level?
“I mean, we played against the Giants and didn’t have but one turnover, and we still played a pretty good game,” said Quin, referring to Detroit’s 24-10 win in Week 2. ” Turnovers are like a bonus, we have to play sound defense regardless. Turnovers are just a bonus.”