ALLEN PARK -- Heading into 2011, the Detroit Lions defensive line was heralded as an elite pass rushing group.
The high expectations manifested into early season concern as the unit produced a less-than-expected seven sacks in the team’s first four contests, while failing to generate the tremendous amount of quarterback pressure that was anticipated.
In short, the performance from the unit wasn’t poor -- by any measure -- but simply failed to live up to the hype accumulated through an offseason of praise.
The truth is, the Lions defensive line has played well and their reputation – as well as the dominance they have previously displayed on film – is actually the cause of the reduced numbers.
During the first quarter of the season, opposing offenses would incorporate a lot of three-step drops, quick throws and quick routes into their passing offense. They would also use misdirection plays and screens. These plays occurred with great frequency, preventing the defensive line from producing a consistent pass rush.
Another factor deterring the line’s ability to rush the passer were the large deficits they faced against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys. Both teams jumped to early leads, eliminating the desire to attempt deep, long developing routes.
The situation was different against the Chicago Bears on Monday night.
The Lions never faced more than a seven-point deficit. They welcomed back rookie Nick Fairley, who had been absent since a training camp injury. Also, perhaps more importantly, Bears' offensive coordinator Mike Martz is notorious for seven and nine step drops from his quarterback and long developing routes from his receivers.
The result was a significantly more effective pass rush.
“We knew coming into the game, he (quarterback Jay Cutler) was going to hold the ball a little longer and give us a chance to get there,” said defensive tackle Corey Williams, who agreed that the increased pressure was a product of Chicago’s passing offense. “Good thing he wasn’t three-stepping and getting rid of the ball. He gave the rush the time to get there.”
The Lions defensive line registered three sacks on the day – a season high for the unit. They also pressured Cutler into quick throws and flushed him out of the pocket on several different occasions.
There were no great scheme changes or adjustments; the defensive line simply took advantage of the opportunity.
“We knew we were going to have opportunities to get to the quarterback,” said defensive end Cliff Avril. “I think guys just capitalized on it more so than anything. I think all nine of us were playing pretty well, all nine of us were getting good pressure. Regardless of who was in at the time. All nine of us were hungry.”
Outside of some concerns towards the pass rush, other concerns have developed regarding the unit’s ability to stop the run. The Lions currently rank 18 against the run, allowing an average of 114.8 yards per game.
The important thing to remember is, that is a measurement of the team, not the defensive line.
The Lions coaching staff prefers to utilize their defensive linemen as pass rushers (one of the reasons they don’t blitz with heavy frequency).
The defensive line doesn’t neglect the run but they also aren’t going to sit at the line of scrimmage to stop it. Rather, the line is going to attempt to put pressure on the QB, and if a running back gets by as a result, it will be up to the back seven to make the tackle.
“The way we are upfront, we are an impact team and we want to put pressure on the passer,” said head coach Jim Schwartz. “We’re not always going to be sitting their hunkering down on the point of attack. We know there is going to be some stuff to clean up (by the linebackers and secondary).”
As the season progresses, expect many teams to attempt to negate the Lions pass rush simply by getting rid of the ball before they can get in the backfield.
This is something the Lions can take advantage of if the back seven continues to perform.
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