Don’t Get Tricked about the Lions Defense

Don't Get Tricked about the Lions Defense
Nov 24, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports.

By now, you’ve been filibustered this week about how poorly the Detroit Lions defense has played through 13 weeks of the 2022 season. Indeed, the team ranks 32nd in Yards Allowed and 32nd in Points Allowed — not ideal for Dan Campbell and friends.

But with the Minnesota Vikings strutting to town with a 10-2 record, don’t get tricked into believing the Lions have a horrible defense or that the Vikings will toss 30+ points on the scoreboard with ease. Detroit’s defense was indeed abysmal until the start of November but has stabilized tremendously since then — and is now actually quite good.

Dec 4, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports.

In fact, the whole team has become a force, seemingly right after the club traded tight end T.J. Hockenson to the Vikings. While Hockenson does not correlate with the Lions defensive performance, Campbell’s men have concocted a 4-1 (.800) record without the ex-Lion, a mark that ranks third-best in the NFL since the trade. Weirdly, Detroit decided it was time to be a good football team the moment it dealt Hockenson to Minnesota.

On defense, the trend is evident. You’re likely to skim Twitter, websites like this, or ESPN statlogs and surmise the Lions defense isn’t any good — and move on with your day. That’s not the dumbest plan ever, but Detroit’s defense has thrived since Week 9. From Week 1 to Week 8, Detroit’s defense ranked 32nd in the NFL per DVOA and 32nd per EPA/Play. The group was historically nauseating.

But starting in December, the Lions defense crawled out of the cellar like a Ratt album. From Week 9 until now, Detroit’s defense ranks sixth in the league per DVOA and 14th per EPA/Play. Few outside of Michigan care, but the Lions defense is suddenly good-good, especially per the DVOA metric.

Did the Lions Give the Vikings a Gameplan?
Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell. © Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK.

And this may be why the Lions are favored over the Vikings by 2.5 points. Folks in Vikingland have struggled to understand how a 5-7 team with the reputation of “the Lions” has the point-spread edge over the 10-2 Vikings, who absolutely refuse to lose close games. Well, the since-Week-9 Lions or post-Hockenson-trade Lions are a different beast, suddenly inspired to play Top 10 or Top 15 defense.

Finally, consider the Lions opponents for context in the last five weeks. Detroit has played Green Bay, Chicago, New York, Buffalo, and Jacksonville, only losing on Thanksgiving to Josh Allen’s Bills. That docket isn’t murderer’s row, so the recent success on defense is perhaps caveated.

We shall see how the newly-sweltering defense performs against Kevin O’Connell’s team. The Vikings have played Top 12 NFL defenses galore during the same period that Detroit decided it was good. The Commanders, Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, and Jets all possess wonderful defenses, and Minnesota tallied a 4-1 record against them.

The Lions have lost nine of their last 10 games to the Vikings.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).