The Green Bay Packers already have faced one of the NFL’s best defensive lines, the Cincinnati Bengals’, two weeks ago.
This week, they’re going against an even better one, probably the league’s best.
The Detroit Lions’ top-tier talent on their line includes the NFL’s top defensive tackle duo in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and a potential star in the making in rookie end Ziggy Ansah. They also have an ascending outside pass rusher in Willie Young.
“I’d say there’s a pretty good argument that they’re the best,” one NFL scout said this week.
General manager Martin Mayhew has taken the same approach to building the Lions as the New York Giants have used over the past decade or so, a span of time that includes the Giants winning two Super Bowls in the past six seasons: investing enormous draft resources into the defensive line.
The Lions, like the Giants before them, have decided that the best way to slow top offenses is by dominating the line of scrimmage. A top defensive line can stop the run, which makes an offense more one-dimensional, and also get regular pressure on the quarterback with only four pass rushers. That pressure covers up weaknesses and allows more men in coverage than if a defense has to blitz on one-third to half the snaps.
But building that kind of front four takes a major commitment of resources, and when a team drafts high at one position group it’s sacrificing elsewhere. But even considering the Giants’ 0-4 start this season, it’s hard to argue with their overall results — the Super Bowl titles they won in the ’07 and ’11 seasons on the strength of their talented and deep defensive lines.
The Lions (3-1) look like a playoff contender early this season for several reasons, including their key free-agent signing of halfback Reggie Bush. But their core is their defensive front, where they’ve spent their top draft pick in three of the past four years, and not just first-round picks but premium selections: Suh with the No. 2 selection overall in 2010, Fairley at No. 13 overall in ’11 and Ansah at No. 5 overall this year.
Though picking high in the draft hardly guarantees landing a good player, let alone a Pro Bowler, it increases the odds, and so far it looks like the Lions have hit on all three.
Two of three scouts interviewed this week said they rank Suh as the league’s best defensive tackle so far this season. His play had slipped the past two years after his revelatory rookie year, but he’s back to overwhelming offensive linemen with his unmatched power and athleticism.
According to ProFootballFocus.com’s film study, Suh’s 28 combined sacks, quarterbacks hits and hurries (hereafter called pressures) rank No. 1 among defensive tackles and No. 2 among all players in the NFL. Only Kansas City outside linebacker Tamba Hali (29) has more. Houston’s J.J. Watt, who’s an inside rusher on passing downs, is second among interior players with 23.
Suh over the past couple of years has become better known for his anger and self-discipline issues on the field — he’s been docked $342,500 in fines and lost salary (one game) for illegal hits and was voted the league’s dirtiest player last year in a poll of 100 NFL players conducted by The Sporting News.
But he’s on his way to his best season by far — in only four games, he’s almost halfway to his career-high 2012 total of 58 pressures.
Suh and Fairley this year have developed a chemistry-rivalry that appears to be prodding both. Their standout play in training camp was one of the Lions’ story lines in August and has carried into the regular season.
If Fairley’s first two seasons were only OK if judged by his draft status (6½ sacks combined), this year he’s become a “red” player — that is, a featured player who ranks in the top 10 the NFL at his position, one notch below a blue player, who’s a rare talent and consistent championship-level performer, as Suh has been this season.
Fairley’s stats (nine pressures) don’t stand up Suh’s, but he’s also missed one game (Week 2 against Arizona) because of a shoulder injury and has played 91 fewer snaps.
“(Fairley) is a difference maker,” a scout said.
Mayhew’s drafting of Ansah has added a third upper-tier talent to the Lions’ defensive line. Ansah already compares favorably with Giants’ standout Jason Pierre-Paul because of his size (6-5, 271 to Pierre-Paul’s 6-5, 278), similarly late entry into football and talent for his position.
Ansah, a native of Ghana, played football for the first time in 2010 as a walk-on at BYU. But he leads all rookies in sacks (2½) and has 13 pressures. Pierre-Paul, on the other hand, was only a part-time player (4½ sacks) as a rookie in 2010 before blossoming in his second season (16½ sacks).
Young (6-4, 251), though not nearly as talented, has developed into an effective player in his fourth NFL season, in part because offenses have to be so concerned with the other three. He has 21 pressures and is fine against the run.
The Lions’ defense has hardly been dominant so far — it ranks No. 18 in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 20 in points. But they are 3-1, and the statistic that probably best illustrates the quality of their front four is their blitz rate.
The Lions have blitzed on only 13.9 percent of their defensive snaps compared to the league average of 32.2 percent, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Yet they’ve created pressure on a higher percentage (39.4) of their four-man rushes than on any of their blitzes short of an eight-man rush.
That means they can get pressure with their defensive line most of the time and drop seven players into coverage. That same ability was the key to the Giants’ upset of the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs in the 2011 season.
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