Lions' run game, defense show marked improvement

Posted Dec. 27, 2010 @ 5:14 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

The Lions have won three games in a row for the first time since 2007 and have won back to back on the road for the first time since '93, doing so with a backup and a third-string QB taking the snaps. In the three games prior to Sunday's win, the Lions had rushed for 505 yards, and the defense made big plays down the stretch of all three victories. Many believe that the future of the Lions belongs in the hands of QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson, but improved play in the run game and on defense have made the Lions a team to watch heading into next season.

The PFW Spin

When the Lions' record stood at 2-10, it was hard to look past that mark, standing out like an ugly blemish on an otherwise comely face. After all, the team featured a bevy of talented youngsters, including Stafford (who was hurt), Johnson, DT Ndamukong Suh, FS Louis Delmas, RB Jahvid Best, TE Brandon Pettigrew, MLB DeAndre Levy and others. But their inability to close out close games in one-score losses to Bears (twice), Eagles, Packers, Giants and Bills appeared to show that this young club was not ready for prime time.

One reason the Lions could not close out games was because of a leaky defense that was too lenient against the pass in the first half and not stout enough against the run in the second half. But that defense has risen to the challenge against two playoff-caliber teams in the Packers and Buccaneers and a Dolphins club that was in the race a few weeks ago. On Sunday, Levy made the game-clinching interception that he ran back for a score, a reminder of how good he could be and how much this defense missed him early in the season. Levy missed five games earlier in the season and the Lions have used five players at the "Mike" spot in 2010. He admitted he "cheated" the route on the pick-six, jumping out of his responsibility slightly to make the game-changing play, but it's an example of the kind of instincts he has to be a stalwart.

Another factor is the improved run game. The team drafted Best near the end of the first round and envisioned him as a full-time back, but he could end up being similar to what Reggie Bush means to the Saints. Case in point: Best was held to four yards per carry on his six rushes, but he took a short catch and raced 53 yards for a TD in Miami, exhibiting his blazing speed. In space, he's as dangerous as any player in the NFL, but he battled two turf toes this season with a heavier workload and had limited success banging into the pile. Finding 10-15 touches per game for Best might be where he's most effective. Pairing him with a physical back would be ideal; Maurice Morris has run hard in that role the past few weeks, and he's the style of back the Lions might look to use in a two- or three-headed attack in 2011.

The offensive line also deserves credit. They have finished their blocks better, worked cohesively and handled a few different styles of fronts in the past month with good success. One or two more additions to this group in the offseason could make the run game even better.

Head coach Jim Schwartz also pointed out an important aspect of synergy in the team's recent success, saying prior to the win over the Dolphins that the defense's better play has allowed the team to run the ball on offense more often and more effectively. The team too often has had to forgo the run when it is trailing, but playing better defense early in games has kept the offensive play-calling much more diverse and flexible.