I was going to include the DE43s and DT43s (the draftnik in me won’t allow me to call them by any other designation) in this installment, but there’s more meat on this bone than I had anticipated.
I’ll get into the current state of affairs on the D-line, a high-level overview of the Lions’ defensive philosophy and scheme before looking at the defensive tackles.
A Defensive Line in Transition
Only five D-line members return from the 2012 Week 17 active roster. Only three (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Willie Young) were significant contributors. Then-rookie Ronnell Lewis played one snap on defense. Jimmy Saddler-McQueen and Ogemdi Nwagbuo were practice squad members.
Gone are DEs Kyle Vanden Bosch (unrestricted free agent), Cliff Avril (Seattle) and Lawrence Jackson (Minnesota). Also missing are DTs Corey Williams (UFA), Sammie Lee Hill (Tennessee) and Andre Fluellen (UFA).
Am I the only one who wonders if one of those UFAs will get a training camp audition for his old job? Or, a backup role?
The Lions have added free agents galore. DEs Israel Idonije, Braylon Broughton and Jason Jones are newcomers along with DTs C.J. Mosley and undrafted free agent Spencer Nealy.
Reader Ill Lion2 has dubbed Idonije “Izzy.” I like it! Izzy and Ziggy has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Anyway, that’s quite a housecleaning, folks. If you feel a little queasy at this upheaval, I can’t blame you.
Making matters worse is that we won’t get much in the way of meaningful information in training camp. There will be only two practice sessions where full-padded contact will be allowed. Without game-like friction, it’s all but impossible to get an accurate assessment of defensive linemen.
For those rare sessions with full contact, my focus will be solely on the D-line. I want to see these guys really get after it. The one-on-ones against their O-line counterparts should be entertaining to say the least.
Of Philosophies and Schemes
The Lions play a 4-3 defense that features a “Wide-9” alignment. Coach Brian Billick explains the Wide-9 to FoxSports here.
The personnel needed to execute the “nine-tech” are two dominant DT43s, a run-stuffing SAM linebacker, a strong safety who’s a tackling machine and DE43s with speed at LDE and physicality at RDE.
The hiring of defensive line assistant Jim Washburn might go down, albeit quietly, as one of the most important acquisitions made by the team in 2013.
Washburn is a pass-rush guru who many credit with inventing the Wide-9. This is debatable. The Eagles may have used the Wide-9 prior to it’s debut in Detroit. The Eagles found early success with the scheme, but a lack of talent at the DT43 positions spelled doom for the scheme as well as the coaching staff.
Now, I don’t profess to be very literate in the Wide-9. If you possess deeper knowledge, then by all means, share it.
Thankfully, the role of the DT43s in Detroit’s defense is easy to understand.
It was the first day of training camp in 2010. Ndamukong Suh had signed his rookie contract two hours earlier. Before practice I asked defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham how he liked his new toy (Suh). He stepped close (he has this little conspiratorial affectation when speaking with me) and said, “I was there [at Suh‘s contract signing]. I shook his hand and gave him his playbook. It had only one page with two words on it: KICK ASS!”
A funny moment, but it illustrates the simplicity of the defensive tackle’s job in the Lions’ 4-3 defense. It’s a “My big guys are gonna beat the snot out of your big guys and their little dogs too!” mentality.
Oh sure, there are some nuances. Stunts, loops and executing the “one-gap”, or “three-gap” techniques (techs) that are staples in any iteration of the 4-3.
The role of the Lions’ DT43s remains pretty straightforward: Penetrate the offensive front, disrupt blocking schemes, collapse pockets and stop the run on the way to the QB.
Oh, and bury the QB at every opportunity.
The Defensive Tackles
Find the right personnel and most of the objectives for your DT43s can be accomplished on a reasonably consistent basis. The Lions are blessed with arguably the best defensive interior line tandem (Suh and Fairley) in the NFL.
As always, statistics will be provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) unless stated otherwise.
He’s ferocious. He’s disruptive. He plays hard through the whistle, and sometimes beyond. He draws double-team blocks and/or trap-blocks on every snap. He’s the scourge of QBs throughout the league.
Suh is a major consideration in every opponent’s game planning.
Quantifying Suh’s effectiveness statistically is a task that yields misleading results. His breakout rookie season of 2010 in which he led all rookies and all defensive tackles with 11 sacks earned him Pro Bowl, All-Pro and rookie of the year honors. A great season that stands on its own merits.
In 2011, Suh’s production had fallen off drastically. Only four sacks for the often-penalized DT raised concerns among fans, who began to question Suh’s effectiveness.
It must be noted, however, that Suh’s greater contribution to the Lions defense comes from making those around him more effective. In 2011, LDE Cliff Avril achieved a career-high 11 sacks lining up next to Suh.
Avril continued to benefit from the Suh factor in 2012, notching another 10 sacks.
DT Nick Fairley is another beneficiary of Suh’s dominating presence. Fairley’s outstanding play (when healthy, that is) is, to some extent enabled by all of the attention paid to Suh.
One stat that stands out is Suh’s 23 penalties over three years. Call it irrational exuberance, if you will. I don’t expect to see much of a change in his bad-boy persona despite collecting only four yellow flags last season.
Memo to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: Schedule the annual meeting with Suh by mid-November to discuss anger management.
There can be little doubt that Suh, the ultimate one-tech DT43, is the heart of the Detroit defense.
When Fairley was drafted in 2011, I went through a rapid series of OMG moments that lasted about as long as I can ride a Brahma bull in a rodeo:
“OMG, the Lions will dominate!"
“OMG, is Fairley healthy?!”
“OMG, Suh and Fairley?!”
“OMG! What about his work ethic?”
“OMG, QBs are gonna die!”
“OMG! He looks like Urkel!”
Yeah, your heads are nodding. You experienced pretty much the same thing, right?
You can feel free to disagree with me here, but I’m going to refer to 2012 as Fairley’s rookie campaign. Fairley did play 236 snaps in 2011, but he was hampered by a foot injury that limited his snaps and practice participation.
Simply put: Fairley wasn’t Fairley in 2011. His physical conditioning and stamina were sub-par. His work ethic was being called into question. He looked like a project of dubious potential.
Fairley played 511 snaps in 2012 (five sacks). He platooned with departed free agents Sammie Lee Hill and Corey Williams. Fairley and Hill combined played only 19 more snaps than Suh’s team-leading 910.
He played some one-tech LDT spelling Suh, but was far more effective at RDT where he notched four of his five sacks. The physical conditioning and stamina issues were melting away as Fairley matured. He delivered on his billing as having an explosiveness off the snap that is rare.
When Fairley is healthy (knock on wood) there isn’t a left guard on the planet that can consistently contain him. Missing the final three games in 2012 with a shoulder injury lends some cause for concern over Fairley’s durability.
The reports we got from this offseason’s minicamp gave Fairley rave reviews. He’s lighter and has a more chiseled physique. Since his quickness off the snap is what makes Fairley so effective, this news bodes well.
Fairley has thrown down the gauntlet this year, stating that he and Suh are the best defensive tackle tandem in the NFL and that Detroit would be going to the Super Bowl.
The former expectation, at least, is quite attainable.
At 6’2”, Mosley is the shortest member of the defensive line. He packs 310 pounds on a frame similar to a wrecking ball. He was signed as a free agent who played all 16 games last year for the Jaguars.
Mosley began his career as a four-tech DE34 for the Jets. Moving to DT43 in Jacksonville, Mosley’s performance improved at both the one, and three-techs.
In 2012, Mosley was PFF’s 15th ranked DT/NT. All three sacks came from the LDT one-tech position. How will Mosley fare at the three-tech RDT position playing next to Suh?
We’ll get that answer soon, as Mosley is sure to be the first off the bench if the current depth chart stands.
No, I will not tell you how to pronounce Nwagbuo. Oh, alright. It’s “new-ah-bo” according to Wikipedia. Typing his name makes my fingers hurt.
Detroit suffered a rash of injuries in December 2012. One of those injuries put DT Nick Fairley on the IR for the final three games of the forgettable, regrettable 2012 season. Nwagbuo was signed to the practice squad as a roster filler.
Nwagbuo was an UDFA signing by the Giants in 2008 who was soon released. He got a call from a desperate Chargers team in 2009 where he played 282 snaps at NT (zero-tech). One sack over two seasons made for an undistinguished resume in San Diego.
Nwagbuo has been a roster yo-yo in San Diego, Carolina and, now, Detroit. At 6’4”, 312 pounds, Nwagbuo has the size to play the one and three-tech DT positions.
Saddler-McQueen is another journeyman player who has bounced his way around the league fringe since being signed by Chicago as an UDFA in 2010.
Saddler-McQueen played one snap in the Lions’ final game of 2012. For the underwhelming Saddler-McQueen, the journey is not over. He’ll be on the bounce once again.
Nealy was signed as an UDFA out of Texas A&M, where he played some DE as well. I have him penciled in at DT and DE until we get an idea of where he fits.
Nealy is listed at 6’5”, 277 pounds. He’s characterized as a “tweener” in this scouting report from National Football Post.
The consensus of opinion is that the Lions will pick up a veteran DT to replace the departed fan favorite, Sammie Lee Hill. I’d speculate that if a veteran isn’t signed by July 25 (the day veterans report to camp) that Corey Williams or Andre Fluellen will get a shot at a backup role until the next best thing comes along.
Suh and Fairley must remain healthy for most, if not all of this season. Head coach Jim Schwartz’s job will be in deeper jeopardy should either DT be lost for a protracted period of time.
For platoon purposes, the Lions usually maintain four defensive tackles on the active roster. C.J. Mosley might be the only special teams contributor among them.
The Lions do have some hybrid options in DE43s Jason Jones and Israel Idonije, who are both experienced inside pass rushers. We’ll consider them in the next installment.
Next Up: The Defensive Ends