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Defense Key To Detroit Lions' Turnaround03:36
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The Detroit Lions have missed the playoffs 13 of the last 14 seasons, and that stat doesn’t quite capture the Lions’ struggles. Since 2001, Detroit has had just one winning season. This year, though, the Lions are off to a promising start, winning five of their first seven games.

Kyle Meinke, who covers the team for MLive media group, joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: Kyle, how are Lions fans reacting to the team’s success?

This team was supposed to score a lot of points, and they've been one of the worst in the NFL this year at scoring points.

Kyle Meinke, Lions beat writer

KM: Well, I think there's a lot of surprise, Bill. I mean you named some stats. There's also the one that they've won one playoff game in nearly 60 years ago. So we're talking about epic levels of failure here.

BL: I laugh but I'm sure that's not funny to people in Detroit.

KM: Well, there's some kind of gallows humor to it, I think.

BL: You note that two of the team’s biggest stars are offensive players and you write, “Detroit has been known as an offensive team for years.” Is it safe to say that’s changed?

KM: This is a team that's really built itself around offense, dating back to the days of Barry Sanders. And, you know, they have Calvin Johnson now, the best receiver in the game, and they spent an offseason surrounding Calvin Johnson and his quarterback Matthew Stafford with offensive toys. So this team was supposed to score a lot of points, and they've been one of the worst in the NFL this year at scoring points. But the defense has been very good. They're No. 1 in the league, and it's surprising a lot of people.

BL: One of the cogs of the Lions’ defense is George Johnson, and nobody saw him coming because Johnson was cut by Minnesota last October and spent the rest of the year out of work. What has he done to become such a key part of Detroit’s success so far?

[sidebar title="How 'Bout Them Cowboys!" width="630" align="right"] Now 6-1, the Dallas Cowboys are also off to a surprisingly strong start. [/sidebar]

KM: You know, in the NFL, if you're not one of the team's best players, it's very common to get cut and to get re-signed. There's a very quick turnover with teams. The thing that's unique with him is that when he was cut by Minnesota last year, it was in the middle of the season. He's 25-years-old, at the peak of his athletic abilities and nobody re-signed him. He was literally on his couch. He and his wife thought his career was over. He was looking at careers in insurance and things like that.The Lions saw something in him they liked and they brought him in and they had him lose some weight.

And that was the big difference for him was he lost about 20 pounds. He just plays like a different player and being with the Lions — the Lions have one of the best defensive lines in the National Football League and being surrounded by so many great players has helped free up George Johnson to have a really surprising and spectacular year so far.

BL: All right now, Kyle, the last thing I want to do is be a kill-joy with respect to this story. But last year the Lions got off to a 6-3 start before dropping six of their final seven games. Is this year gonna be different?

The biggest difference with this team -- and this is what they would tell you if you were to ask them this question -- is their coach.

Kyle Meinke, Lions beat writer

KM: I mean it's a fair question because the Lions have had good starts in the past including that 6-3 start you alluded to last year. And this year's roster is almost identical. Even if you talk about the defense which is so much better this year, nine of the starters were players for the team last year.

The biggest difference with this team — and this is what they would tell you if you were to ask them this question — is their coach. They fired Jim Schwartz after last season and they hired Jim Caldwell. And one of the reasons why they hired Caldwell is because he's known around league circles as being a calm guy, a mature guy.

He whittles away the highs and the lows and keeps the team pretty even keeled. And it sounds like a lot of coach-speak, but, if you are around the team every day, you could feel the team getting sucked into their high, their 6-3 start, and as soon as they lost two games coming off that start it all fell apart. Everything just snowballed. And this year, when stuff doesn't go right, this team perseveres.

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This segment aired on October 25, 2014.

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