October 21, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Josh Katzenstein

Monday breakdown: So far, Lions defensive line isn't living up to the hype

Lions rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah (94) sacks Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14), forcing a fumble Sunday. The play was called back because of a Lions penalty. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

After seven games, trends start to emerge in the NFL, and it’s fair to begin judging teams for what they’ve shown.

And the defensive line simply is not giving the Lions the production they sorely need.

The Lions rank 27th in the NFL with 13 sacks, a far cry from the team’s expectations as well as most prognosticators.

While coach Jim Schwartz could easily dismiss the early lack of production by saying the defensive line created plenty of pressure, an inability to capitalize has doomed the defense thus far.

The Lions linebacker corps and secondary have improved from last season, but this is a defense that needs stout play up front to stop opponents.

In Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Bengals, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton had all day to throw, which is why he finished 24 of 34 for 372 yards and three touchdowns and with a career-best 135.9 passer rating.

Lions cornerback Chris Houston commendably took the blame for his poor coverage after the game, but if the defensive line had pressured Dalton more, Houston’s struggles may have been overlooked. Same goes for the several chunk pass plays allowed that have put the defense in tough spots this season.

Dalton was sacked 13 times in the four games prior to Sunday, so the Lions should’ve had opportunities to break through the Bengals offensive line. Instead, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had the Lions’ only sack, and it came after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.

The week before, the Lions played the Browns, one of the most sack-prone teams in the league (27 sacks allowed currently ranks 30th), but the Lions sacked quarterback Brandon Weeden only twice.

Still, including the Browns game, the Lions are 4-0 this season when they have multiple sacks. They reached Minnesota’s Christian Ponder and Chicago’s Jay Cutler three times each and Washington’s Robert Griffin III twice.

However, in a Week 2 loss to Arizona, tied for 21st with 20 sacks allowed, the Lions reached Carson Palmer only once, and they sacked Aaron Rodgers once in a Week 5 loss to Green Bay.

The blame for the lack of sack production can go around the defensive line.

Suh, despite his constant double teams, has been incredibly disruptive this season, but he needs to find a way to capitalize when he’s in front of the quarterback — his 27 quarterback hurries are most among defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. In addition to the sack Sunday, Suh had three tackles, including one for loss.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, meanwhile, has been a ghost in the passing game since his dominant Week 1 performance in which he had five tackles and 1.5 sacks. Since returning from a shoulder injury in Week 3, Fairley has just seven tackles and zero sacks. His only statistical contribution Sunday was one pass defensed.

He has 11 quarterback hurries in 295 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and C.J. Mosley has five hurries in 164 snaps.

Defensive ends Willie Young and rookie Ziggy Ansah have combined for five sacks this season, but they have only 1.5 in the past four games. Rookie Devin Taylor had a sack and forced fumbled against the Browns last week, but veteran Israel Idonije has just four tackles all season.

Many expected the defensive line to be the best part of the Lions defense this season, and so far, the unit just hasn’t lived up to the hype. Moving forward, the group needs to turn pressures into sacks and do all it can to carry what’s been a mediocre defense through seven games.

Around the NFC North

* What a difference a week makes. With the Lions (4-3) and Bears (4-3) losing, the Packers are suddenly in first place in the division after crushing the Browns, 31-13.

What’s most impressive about the Packers win is they did it without two of their top three receivers, James Jones and Randall Cobb. Second-year receiver Jarrett Boykin filled in with eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown, and all the credit goes to Rodgers for carrying a short-handed offense.

* It’s a dark day in Chicago. The team announced Cutler is out at least four weeks with a torn groin, and linebacker Lance Briggs is out six weeks with a small shoulder fracture. The news comes after a 45-41 loss to the Redskins, a game that showed why many were so skeptical about the Chicago defense — Washington amassed 499 yards in the game. Luckily, the Bears have a bye week to rest before a Week 9 showdown in Green Bay, but the odds of quarterback Josh McCown winning at Lambeau Field are slim.

* The Vikings (1-4) play Monday night on the road against the Giants (0-6). This should be an easy victory considering how bad the Giants have been in every aspect of the game this season. Something to watch is how quarterback Josh Freeman plays in his first start for Minnesota.

Around the NFL

* I’ve decided Andrew Luck is already the second-best quarterback in the NFL. I’m not one to overlook the historically great play of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, but if I had to win one game right now, I’d take Luck after Rodgers.

Before Sunday night’s Colts-Broncos game, nearly everyone talked about how much Manning was going to torch his former team. Instead, Luck dominated in a 39-33 win to spoil Manning’s homecoming. Luck was 21 of 38 for 228 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran four times for 29 yards and a score. He’s going to be great for a long time.

* The Cowboys, who come to Detroit next Sunday, surprised with a great defensive effort in a 17-3 win in Philadelphia this week. Despite defensive end DeMarcus Ware (thigh) being out, the Cowboys had three sacks and five tackles for loss in the game. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo should be able to pick apart the Lions defense, so if the Cowboys defense plays similarly this Sunday, the Lions may have another wake-up call.

* There were some devastating injuries around the NFL Sunday, all according to reports.

At Ford Field, Bengals cornerback Leon Hall tore his Achilles tendon and is likely out for the year.

St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford tore his ACL is out for the year.

Texans linebacker Brian Cushing tore his LCL and broke his leg, which will likely cost him the rest of the season.

Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne tore his ACL and meniscus and is done for the season.

Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin has a torn labrum, and is out for the season.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com
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