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08/24/12Author: Chris McCoskey - Detroit News

Lions’ defense showing improvement

Lions’ defense showing improvement

Allen Park — It's the million-dollar question with these Lions, isn't it? Is the defense going to be any better?

The answer won't come before the start of the regular season, obviously, but the early indications are mostly positive.

"I have a lot of faith in the guys that are out there," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said Wednesday. "I believe we are getting tighter as a group. The chemistry is growing and it's going to be real interesting when we decide on the final defensive roster."

Measuring improvement in training camp and exhibition games is tricky, especially when the Lions have been without several key players — safety Louis Delmas (knee), end Kyle Vanden Bosch (knee) and tackle Sammie Hill (back).

But in the two exhibition games, the first-team defense has not allowed a touchdown. Their third-down proficiency has been solid (the Browns and Ravens were a combined 4 for 13) and they've produced five sacks and forced two turnovers.

"We have done a pretty good job of holding people out of our end zone," coach Jim Schwartz said. "But we haven't really done a whole lot on defense (in terms of schemes). We haven't done a lot of blitzing, and even though we don't blitz much, we do blitz a little. We haven't game-planned.

"But it is good to see when teams start to move the ball a little bit, we're finding ways to get the drive stopped. There are definitely things we're pleased with, but as a group (the defense) is still a work in progress and will continue to be."

Schwartz talked at the end of last season about making subtle changes to the defensive schemes, tweaking certain formations to better fit the strengths and weaknesses of the defensive personnel.

"We'll be changing things up and adjusting the schemes," middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "We will be doing some different things that will help shore up some of our weaknesses."

The Lions are using the wide-9 formation, with the defensive ends deployed well outside the offensive tackles. They have tinkered with what Cunningham termed the "Gray" formation, where defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley will stand up or align on the ends.

But most of the other schematic adjustments have been kept under wraps.

When asked to talk in general terms about what those adjustments might look like, linebacker Justin Durant politely begged off.

"We don't talk about schemes," he said. "But we are putting in a lot of work and getting better each day. We improved from Game 1 to Game 2 and that's all we talk about — getting better each day and not ever going backwards."

The dark cloud

The darkest cloud hovering over any potential improvement on defense is the health of Delmas. The defense virtually collapsed last season after he injured his right knee during the Thanksgiving Day loss to Green Bay.

He's going to miss the entire camp after having surgery two weeks ago on his left knee. The Lions remain optimistic he will be ready to play by Week 1, but there's no guarantee. In the meantime, veterans Erik Coleman and John Wendling have emerged as the starting tandem at safety.

Cunningham was asked if he would be comfortable starting the regular season with those two.

"I'd be comfortable," he said. "Both of those guys have played a lot of football and last week (at Baltimore) I was really impressed with them. They handled themselves extremely well."

Coleman, a former starter with the Jets and Falcons, has beaten out third-year safety Amari Spievey and most likely will start when Delmas gets back. Wendling is the surprise.

He's made his career as a special-teams ace. Before last season, he'd only played a handful of defensive snaps in his five NFL seasons.

"When he came in as a (special) teams player, we didn't give up on him," Cunningham said. "We coached him like everybody else and he got on board with it and he showed what he can do. I am real proud of him."

Wendling always has been scheme-smart and a sure tackler. The reason he has taken his game to another level is his improved pass coverage skills.

"His movement skills against the pass are so much improved," Cunningham said. "He understands the game and he understands his body. What people don't understand about John is, yes he's very smart and really tough, but he's really fast."

His sub-4.4 speed is what made him successful as a gunner on special teams.

"We're definitely comfortable with those guys," Durant said of Wendling and Coleman. "You could see it in the games, they are out there making plays, both of them filling up gaps in the run game and playing over the top and making plays in the pass game.

"I have the utmost confidence in both of them."

Cunningham said there have been no attempts to change the defense or simplify the responsibilities of the safeties because of the absence of Delmas. It's just, one man down, next man in.

"We can't afford to (change the defense)," he said. "If you did that, hypothetically, and Louis comes back, then you have to start all over again. You keep going in the same direction and you hope you make the right calls."

More questions

At the midpoint of the preseason, there are still significant questions that need to be answered on defense.

For the defensive line to improve, young players like Willie Young and Fairley have to step up. Young has been one of the most productive players in camp. Fairley has been inconsistent.

"He's got all the tools to be very good," Cunningham said. "The biggest problem for him is, he's going to have to grow up fast and be consistent. In that position, you can't be a part-time guy because if the offensive line smells blood, they're going to go get him."

For the secondary to improve, not only do Wendling and Coleman have to keep producing, rookie Bill Bentley has to continue to secure the right cornerback spot. He is the best option right now.

"Consistency is at a premium there," Schwartz said. "A wide receiver can make three catches and drop one and you can still score a touchdown. If you are a defensive back and you defend well three times but give up one on the fourth, it's a touchdown and you don't look so good."

As Schwartz said, the defense is a work in progress — progress being the key word.

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