A shortened version of this story was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Football games are often won in the trenches by the (mostly) unheralded 300-pound lineman.
You can have Peyton Manning as your quarterback, but if the offensive line doesn’t give him time in the pocket, he’ll put up pedestrian numbers.
You can have Barry Sanders at halfback and sure he’ll make some big plays, but if the line can’t create running lanes, he won’t look good either.
You can have the greatest secondary in the world, but if the pass rush never gets to the quarterback, nobody can cover NFL receivers for seven or eight seconds every play.
What am I getting at? This season, the play of the Lions’ defensive line has boosted this defense to the ranks of the elite. Led by the play of Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah along the defensive line, Detroit is the number one overall defense according to Football Outsiders, ranking first against the run and third versus the pass. They are allowing a league-low 17.2 points per game and it all starts up front with a defensive line that consistently wins its battles.
They have allowed 18 passing touchdowns and generated 17 interceptions, tied for second-most. The line has generally made quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket, garnering 35 sacks (seventh in the NFL) including six against Tampa Bay.
Let’s examine how the Lions were able to produce pressure and disrupt the Bucs’ offense.
The Lions’ run defense has been such a terror this season that teams have stopped trying to run against them. The Bucs’ running backs combined for 10 rushes and 18 yards. Here is an example of why Tampa Bay gave up on the run game. Suh used a fantastic burst at the snap to attack the inside shoulder of the unsuspecting right guard. He was barely touched and flew into the backfield. The back had no chance as Suh immediately stuffed him for a four-yard loss.
Suh collected three tackles for a loss on the day and now has 17 for the season, which is tied for third in the NFL.
Anyone who has watched this team knows defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has done a tremendous job of turning a mediocre defense into one of the best in the game. The only major addition was veteran safety James Ihedigbo, otherwise the players are mostly the same group from last season. Austin has been phenomenal at disguising his defensive calls, which has allowed the Lions to catch offenses unprepared.
On this second-and-goal play in the second quarter, Austin sent his outside linebackers, DeAndre Levy and rookie Kyle Van Noy, on B-Gap blitzes between the guards and tackles. Middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead was responsible for the halfback in coverage.
The Bucs didn’t account for Levy. They may have thought Whitehead would be blitzing and Levy would drop into coverage. They guessed wrong. The center slid to his left, leaving the Lions with a numbers advantage of three rushers versus two blockers on the opposite side. Levy came screaming through the B-Gap untouched and sacked quarterback Josh McCown for an eight-yard loss.
Austin is an excellent in-game play caller. He calls blitzes at the right time and that’s been a key reason why they’ve been able to keep offenses off balance. Here’s a slot corner blitz he called from Cassius Vaughn, which disrupted a screen pass that had a chance to hit for big yardage. Note that as the receiver motioned across the formation, Vaughn and Ihedigbo looked at one another to make sure that when Vaughn blitzed, Ihedigbo would cover the slot receiver. Communication is key especially in the secondary. The Lions have been very good at this thus far, which has led to minimal breakdowns.
When Austin doesn’t send extra pressure, he occasionally likes to stunt his lineman. The Lions have had success running stunts this year.
This was just a four-man rush but it was a stunt with Suh looping around Ansah. This was third-and-14 late in the fourth quarter and the resulting sack snuffed any hope for the Bucs. Ansah was able to generate great push up the middle, which forced McCown to roll to his left. Suh came untouched around the end and was waiting for McCown.
Ansah was unblockable in the passing game and was constantly in McCown’s face. The No. 5 overall pick from the 2013 draft, Ansah is an emerging star in just his second season. Pro Football Focus has him down for 50 quarterback pressures, and grades him as the second-best pass rusher among 4-3 defensive ends. He had eight sacks in 14 games as a rookie and has 7.5 so far this season. He was a nightmare for the Bucs in this game, grabbing four quarterback hits and a sack.
Here, Ansah used a great jump off the line to beat the left tackle with speed. Whitehead looped around the slanting Suh and Jason Jones, and pressured McCown up the middle, preventing him from stepping up in the pocket. Ansah and Whitehead met at the quarterback, which forced an off-target and hurried throw.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter to the play right before Suh’s sack on the stunt. On this play, Ansah used a powerful bull rush to push the tackle into McCown’s lap.
Ansah didn’t get credit for sacks on either of those two plays, but he affected both throws and forced the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly.
With the defensive line attracting so much attention, the rest of the defense has been able to fly to the ball unimpeded. Levy leads the NFL with 95 solo tackles, the defensive backs have been able to stick with their receivers in coverage, and the safeties have been ball hawks, combining for nine interceptions. Ihedigbo earned his fourth pick and Glover Quin secured his fifth INT in Sunday’s win.
With Austin calling the right plays at opportune times, and the players executing as well as any unit in the league, this defense is a formidable bunch. Sure, they can’t overlook a well-coached Minnesota team and winning in Chicago late in the year is never easy. Yet that Green Bay game, with the chance to face Aaron Rodgers with the division title likely on the line, can’t come soon enough.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.