A week and a half ago, third-year Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay had an unflinching response to a question posed by Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
“We’ve got the same kind of talent they (the Seattle Seahawks) got. They got a pass rush, they’ve got defensive backs, we’ve got defensive backs. They’ve got ‘backers, we’ve got ‘backers,’ ” Slay said. “(Last year) we were one of the best defenses in the league.”
It’s nonsensical to assess professional athletes by something as subjective as talent, so let’s compare the productivity of the defenses on the field by the positional groups Slay outlined to determine if his comments have any merit.
Slay is correct: Detroit had an elite defense in 2014. The Lions ranked third in scoring defense (17.6 points allowed per game) and were particularly potent at attacking the ball carrier (No. 1 in rush defense, per Football Outsiders). Seattle, however, was slightly more impressive, leading the league in scoring defense (15.9 points per game) for the second straight year. While Detroit finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, Seattle sat atop the apex of the leader board in the metric. The disparity manifested in Pro-Football Reference’s Defensive Simple Rating System, too.
It’s rare to see a rush defense flourish without also seeing high productivity from a team’s pass rush. Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin saw his squad get to the quarterback at the ninth highest rate last season, amassing 42 total sacks (No. 8 in the NFL). Seattle posted lesser figures in both metrics.
However, consider that Slay’s comments were made after the franchise lost Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley (who missed half of last season), and C.J. Mosley, who combined for 28.5 percent of the team’s sacks in 2014. Fairley and Suh commanded endless double teams, which, while mitigating their individual effectiveness, opened avenues for teammates. To bolster their interior, Detroit signed Haloti Ngata, who was promptly placed on the non-football injury list and his return timetable is uncertain. Seattle, meanwhile, returns its top pass rushers: Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin, and Jordan Hill.
Detroit’s DeAndre Levy amassed 270 tackles over the past two seasons and holds a place in the elite echelon of NFL linebackers. However, outside of Levy, Detroit likely will be starting Stephen Tulloch, a man who has eclipsed 90 tackles once in the past four seasons and ended his own 2014 season injuring himself while celebrating, and Tahir Whitehead, who has one season of 11-plus tackles under his belt. Seattle has a bevy of talent in its linebacker corps, including three players—2014 Pro Bowler Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Irvin—who each ranked in the top 25 in Win Probability Added among linebackers last season.
Slay is a promising talent at cornerback, and Detroit has an abundance of depth at the position. In Win Probability Added, Slay led Detroit’s secondary a season ago (0.85, which ranked No. 29 in the NFL). However, the Seahawks have two elite cornerbacks in Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. Sherman (1.12 in WPA, which ranked No. 10) and Maxwell (0.83 in WPA, which ranked No. 30) are as good as they come, and Seattle’s secondary posted better figures than Detroit last season in yards per pass attempt and yards per completion, while holding opposing quarterbacks to a lower average passer rating.
Seattle will be tested throughout 2015; they own one of the five toughest schedules this upcoming season, according to ESPN. But until the Seahawks are dethroned from having the top overall defense in the league, Slay’s comments ring hollow.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.