For years, the Detroit Lions have been known as a team that can get off to a hot start and then fade down the stretch, due in large part to defensive deficiencies. But if Detroit is going to rise to the top of the NFC North – and stay there this time – it may not be the way that fans are expecting. While they have some game-breakers on offense, it’s been the Lions defense that has been Detroit’s calling card this season.
Ranked No. 1 in overall defense, including being fourth against the rush and fifth against the pass, the Lions have become one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL. That hasn’t always been the case. Just ask Greg Jennings. He’s played against the Lions as both a member of the Packers and Vikings and has seen how Detroit has a tendency to start strong and fade as the year has gone by – something he fears won’t happen this time around.
“Playing against Detroit, I’ve seen these guys for years kind of shoot themselves in the foot, especially defensively,” Jennings said. “But they look great. They look really good on defense. They’re getting to the quarterback, which has never been an issue for them. They’re making plays in the secondary. That’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
The Lions have always been strong up front with blue-chip draft picks Ndomukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle and Ziggy Ansah from the outside. Along with fellow DEs Jason Jones, George Johnson and Devin Taylor, Detroit has a strong rotation at defensive end that they have used to stir the drink.
But the biggest difference has been on the back end of the defense, where the Lions have used free agency to help build their roster, signing cornerback Rashean Mathis (Jacksonville), Glover Quin (Houston) and James Ihedigbo (Baltimore) to go along with young draftee Darius Slay. The front four is the key to the success, but the Lions have legitimate playmakers on the back end that can get the job done on their own.
“A lot of it has to do with their front four,” Jennings said. “They create a lot of issues up front. They get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. They make the quarterback hurry and rush throws because of the pressure they know they’re going to be under. That takes a lot of stress off the secondary, but they’ve got a lot of savvy veterans back there now. They got the safety from the Ravens (Ihedigbo). Quin has always been a smart, savvy safety. Then you’ve got Mathis outside, a veteran corner that understands schemes and concepts, and then you’ve got the young guy (Slay) who can be nurtured by those three vets. They have the pieces and they’re showing that they can get it done.”
The Lions have four legitimate Pro Bowl candidates up front with Suh and Fairley capable of bottling up the middle and Ansah and Jones coming from the outside. They are in their second year together as a complete starting unit and it is little wonder that they have become one of the most oppressive defensive lines in the game. Detroit has invested heavily in making it so.
The challenge for the Vikings offensive line will be to take the fight to them, because anyone who plays passively or cautiously against this front four gets overrun.
“Almost every one of their defensive linemen are first-rounders,” offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. “It’s going to be a game where we’re going to have to line up and get physical with them and show them that we’re the tougher group. That’s how you beat them. They’re the No. 1 defense in the league. They’re pretty stout and we’re going to have our hands full.”
The biggest problem facing the Vikings will be at defensive end. The rotation system has worked well for the Lions thus far this season because they run players in an out so often. Through five games, Ansah has been on the field for about 65 percent of snaps. Jones checks in at about the same number. Johnson is in on about 45 percent of players, Taylor is on the field about 25 percent of the time and veteran Darryl Tapp is in for about 20 percent.
When a team has five defensive ends running in and out, it can cause a lot of stress on an offense. With Suh and Fairley in the middle and a steady stream of pass rushers coming in and out, they can consistently create pressure from all angles.
“They spread you thin,” Jennings said. “Everyone can pressure the quarterback. Their front four can rotate – they keep them fresh. If it’s not Suh, it’s the young pup Nick (Fairley). If it’s not him, it’s one of the outside guys. It’s always somebody coming and wreaking havoc on your quarterback and trying to disrupt what you’re doing.”
At the center of the storm will be Kalil and right tackle Phil Loadholt. The interior linemen pretty much know that they’re going to spend most of the day going up against Suh and Fairley, but the tackles will be facing several different looks from different players with different skill sets.
The challenge for Kalil and Loadholt will be using their technique and fundamentals to stave off the steady onslaught of fresh players looking to blow up plays and make Teddy Bridgewater get off his spot in the pocket.
“They keep themselves fresh,” Loadholt said. “They have a lot of different guys they use and they all rush differently, so you have to know your keys and really be prepared mentally, because one play they’ll try to come around the edge and the next time they’ll try to dip inside. You really have to be prepared mentally for what they’re going to do.”
In the end, the most critical aspect of Sunday’s game will be to protect Bridgewater and let him scan the field. Last week against Green Bay, the Packers confused the Vikings and were able to get a lot of pressure on Christian Ponder. As Bridgewater prepares for his second career start, his offensive linemen know that they will have to play a textbook game if they expect to see a repeat of the rookie quarterback’s performance against Atlanta.
The Lions are clearly the toughest defense the Vikings have faced to date and may be the strongest group they face all year. If fans are looking for a measuring stick as to how far Bridgewater is along in his maturation as an NFL quarterback, Sunday may be his stiffest test.
The yards and the points won’t come easy, but the offensive line has confidence that, if they do their job, Bridgewater will do his.
“He’s a great player, and if we give him time he’s going to make a lot of throws,” Kalil said. “That opens up other things for us if we can open up the passing game and get a nice balance going. If we can keep him clean back there and keep his confidence up, it’s going to help us tremendously.”
Vikings suspect a different Detroit defense
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