In Detroit, the Lions’ Defense Does the Heavy Lifting

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It is a new football era in Detroit. For five years, the Lions were known as a talented but undisciplined squad that failed to reach its potential under Jim Schwartz. The defense, in particular, was high on names but low on production. And while the offense had its moments, it was asked to do too much: In five years Detroit won only two games when it failed to score 20 points, the second fewest in the N.F.L. over that span behind San Diego.

But this year the new-look Lions have already won two low-scoring matchups against division rivals. In Week 3, Detroit held the Packers to 7 points, the fewest in any game that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers started and finished. The Lions also held Green Bay to 223 yards, the fewest in any game with Rodgers since 2008. On Sunday, Detroit’s defense was outstanding: It recorded eight sacks and three interceptions against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and forced five three-and-outs, with a sixth drive ending in a four-and-out.

Detroit limited the Vikings to 212 yards, the third time this year the Lions have allowed fewer than 225 yards in a game; the other 31 defenses have limited opponents below that mark only 10 times. The Lions’ defense leads the N.F.L. in yards (270), points (13.7) and first downs (16.8) allowed per game, and is the top overall defense in the league. Detroit has allowed a league-low 4.5 yards per play, along with an N.F.L.-best 5.2 net yards allowed per pass.

The Lions have not allowed an opposing running back to rush for even 50 yards in five of the team’s first six games, with the Jets’ Chris Ivory (84 yards) producing the best game by a runner against Detroit this year. It has been an across-the-board dominant six weeks from Detroit.

What is the cause for the turnaround? Many of the faces are the same, including the key contributors. But the level of play has improved on both the individual and team level. Not only have the pieces improved, but the whole has become greater than the sum of the parts. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C. J. Mosley make up the best interior line in the N.F.L. According to Pro Football Focus, Suh leads all defensive tackles with 15 quarterback hits, while Fairley is tied for third with 10.

In 2013, the Lions used the team’s first-round pick on Ezekiel Ansah, a raw but talented defensive end out of Brigham Young. Ansah was dominant against the Vikings, recording 2.5 sacks and embarrassing Minnesota’s Pro Bowl left tackle, Matt Kalil. Detroit is also three deep at defensive end — James Jones provides strong support against the run, while the pass rushing specialist George Johnson leads the team with four sacks.

The great play of the front four has led to a breakout season from outside linebacker DeAndre Levy. While he recorded six interceptions last year, Levy is having an All-Pro-caliber season both in coverage and against the run. The key members of the secondary — cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay and safety Glover Quin — were on the 2013 Lions, too, but all three are playing much better under Teryl Austin, the new defensive coordinator. After spending three years as the defensive backs coach with the Ravens, he has helped turn the Detroit secondary from a weakness to a strength.

For years, the Lions were defined by the high-volume passing offense centered on quarterback Matt Stafford and the all-world receiver Calvin Johnson. But since Week 1, an injured Johnson has been limited to 184 yards over five weeks, and Stafford’s performances have similarly underwhelmed. For the first time in a long time, the defense is carrying the team in Detroit.

Statistical Oddities

■ Detroit’s excellent defense is covering for one of the worst field-goal units in modern history. The Lions have used three place-kickers this year, and have made 5 of 15 attempts. That makes Detroit the first team since the 1981 Browns to miss 10 field goals through six games.

■ Julius Thomas, the Denver tight end, has nine touchdowns. Since 1960, only Calvin Johnson (2011) has recorded nine touchdowns in his team’s first five games. The single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end is 17, set by Rob Gronkowski in 2011.

■ The Arizona Cardinals are the only team that has yet to throw an interception this year. Making the feat more incredible: the team’s top quarterbacks (Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton) have been injured this year. Arizona also features one of the most vertical, risk-seeking passing attacks in the N.F.L. The last team to avoid an interception through five games was the 2010 Jets.

■ Matt Forte, the Chicago running back, leads the N.F.L. in receptions. The last running back to do that was Roger Craig, who caught 92 passes in 1985. With 46 receptions in six games, Forte has a chance to break the single-season record for catches by a running back, 101, set by Larry Centers in 1995.

■ DeMarco Murray has rushed for 785 yards, the seventh most by a running back through six team games since 1960. Murray’s 159 carries are the third most of any player in the last 55 years. The Cowboys star has been outstanding, but he missed time with injuries in each of his first three seasons. Since he has rushed at least 22 times in each game this year, Dallas may want to limit his workload to ensure he is healthy when the games matter most.