The Detroit Lions are tied for the best record in the NFL. It has a ring to it, doesn't it? This is the first time they have had at least a share of the best record in the NFL this late in a season since 1993, the year of their last division title. It's only been 30 years!
The way Detroit is playing on both sides of the ball this year, a division title might be the floor. The elite offense from a year ago has gotten even better, but the defense has leveled up in a way that should strike fear into the rest of the NFC. Long gone is the unit that lost in relative track meets to the Eagles (38-35), Vikings (28-24), Seahawks (48-45) and Dolphins (31-27) in the first half of last year during their dreadful 1-6 start.
The Lions are 13-3 since, a mark only surpassed by the 49ers (14-1) and Chiefs (14-2). While the defense made some strides to spark their second-half surge last year, mainly with the pass rush, they've been a completely different unit in 2023.
Detroit was 31st in defensive EPA per game last year, ranking dead last during the 1-6 start and still just 28th over the 8-2 finish to the season. They have jumped all the way up to 10th this season, tied with the Browns for the largest improvement in the league from last season. Both teams moved up 21 spots on that leaderboard.
|Most Improved Defenses (EPA per Game Rank)
Let's look under the hood at four ways Detroit's defense has transformed this year:
1. Scheme changes: More zone and less blitz
Aaron Glenn has shaken things up in his third season as the Lions defense coordinator as Detroit has gone from playing man coverage at the third-highest rate in the league last year, to the 11th-lowest this season. No team has made such a drastic shift from man to zone.
The Lions are also blitzing a lot less. They went from the seventh-highest blitz rate last year to the fifth lowest this year. Only the Cardinals and Dolphins have abandoned sending extra rushers quite like Detroit.
The beauty of the Lions' change is it hasn't compromised their pass rush. Detroit has the sixth-highest pressure rate this year despite the fifth-lowest blitz rate. The scatterplot below showcases every team's performance in both categories this season. The Lions are in the same area as the 49ers, Bills, Ravens, Jets and Dolphins. Pretty good company. The only other team with a top-six pressure rate and a bottom-six blitz rate year is the Jets, who have one of the most formidable fronts in the league. Aidan Hutchinson has been a big reason the Lions are in such company ... more on him later.
Detroit has dramatically cut down on big plays thanks to creating natural pressure with more defenders dropping in coverage. They've gone from bottom five to top five in explosive plays (10+ yard rushes and 20+ yard passes) allowed from 2022 to 2023. They also lead the NFL in yards after catch average allowed.
2. Personnel moves: Brian Branch a standout rookie
Of course, they could make all the scheme changes in the world, but what good is it if you don't have the talent? The Lions upgraded in that department this offseason, notably drafting LB Jack Campbell (first round) and DB Brian Branch (second round), while signing DBs Cameron Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley in free agency. Moseley is out for the season and Gardner-Johnson and Branch have been banged up, but the impact has still been felt, particularly with Branch.
The rookie from Alabama has made a big impression despite missing the last two games with an ankle injury. He's the only cornerback ranked top 10 in both run defense and coverage grade by Pro Football Focus this season. He has played slot corner almost exclusively and stole the spotlight in Week 1 by returning a Patrick Mahomes interception for a touchdown on a drop by Kadarius Toney. His play in Week 3 against the Falcons was eye-popping and shows why people are raving about the physicality of Detroit's defense.
Branch lined up in the box on 25 plays in that game to help limit the Falcons to 44 rushing yards and 2.2 yards per carry, both their worst figures in the last two seasons, when they've had one of the best ground attacks in the NFL. Branch racked up 11 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two pass deflections in that game. He's the only player this season -- and the only rookie on record -- with 10 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two passes defended in a game.
And good news for Detroit fans, he has a chance to return in what could be a slugfest against the Ravens and their dynamic rush attack in Week 7.
3. Run defense is biting kneecaps off
Of all the dramatic turnarounds, the biggest is up front with the run defense. In other words, Dan Campbell's infamous words from his introductory press conference "we're going to bite a kneecap off" are starting to come to fruition.
The Lions have the league's top-rushing defense this year, allowing just 64.7 rushing yards per game (second best in the NFL). compared with 146.5 last year, 29th in the NFL. That's on pace to be the largest improvement by any team (81.9 fewer yards) since the 1974 Patriots.
Detroit's 388 rush yards allowed are its fewest through six games in franchise history. No team has hit the century mark against the Lions and the most rush yards against them in a game by a player is 45 by … Patrick Mahomes.
|Lions Rush Defense
Rush yards per game
Yards per rush
Yards before contact per rush
The Lions load the box more than most teams with guys like Brian Branch, plus nose tackle Alim McNeill has been a force in the middle, ranking third among interior defenders in run defense grade behind Dexter Lawrence and Quinnen Williams, who are two of the best and highest-paid defensive tackles in the business.
4. Aidan Hutchinson Year 2 leap
The face of Detroit's defense is 2022 No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, who is getting off the ball quicker and getting pressure more often in Year 2. He's third in the NFL in pressures (36) this season behind only Maxx Crosby and Micah Parsons, per Pro Football Focus. And nobody has more pressures without the help of a blitz (28). He's 14th in pressure rate (16%) among the top 100 players in pass rush snaps this year, up from 60th last year (10%).
He's elevated his play to near elite edge rusher territory and is one reason Detroit has gone from bottom five to top five in third-down defense since last year. You need an elite edge rusher to close out drives (and games) in the NFL, and that's what Hutchinson is developing into.
You also need a plus unit on both sides of the ball to compete against the likes of the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys in the NFC. It looks like Detroit now has that with one of the most improved defenses in football.