Lions' Nick Fairley, center, with Ezekiel Ansah, Stephen Tulloch and Bill Bentley celebrate a fumble recovery in the team's first meeting against Bears this season. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Detroit — Everyone wants to see the home runs.
But right now, mostly what the Lions are getting with their defensive front are doubles.
Double teams, that is. Extra protection from opponents trying to keep the Lions’ four-man pass rush — the well-advertised strength of their defense — at arm’s length.
“I know why they’re doubling us,” said defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who spent a good deal of his time during the bye week trying to figure out how to turn those extra-base hits into grand slams. “They don’t want us to hit the quarterback. And my God, you need a Sherman tank to get through all the guys they hold in to block sometimes.”
Luckily for the Lions, they have one in Ndamukong Suh, a one-man wrecking crew who is taking on double teams — “I mean, there isn’t a play I can remember where he’s single-blocked” — and making a case for NFL defensive MVP honors this season.
But if the Lions are going to make a serious bid for the playoffs, starting with Sunday’s matchup of division leaders in Chicago, they know they’ll need more from their front four in the second half.
They’re holding their own defensively — no team has allowed fewer third-down conversions — yet they’re ranked 29th in the league with just 13 sacks in eight games, and they know that’s not enough.
Not if they’re going to continue to rush four and blitz sparingly, in part to protect a still-suspect secondary. (“It’s a tough call: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Cunningham admitted Friday.) And not after investing three of their last four first-round picks in that defensive line, though the most recent addition — rookie Ziggy Ansah — won’t play Sunday at Soldier Field due to a high-ankle sprain.
“Obviously, we all want 10 sacks apiece right now,” defensive end Willie Young, who as a former seventh-round pick is the lone exception among the starters. “But we ain’t stressin’ about it. All we can do is keep coming. Because we see on film that we’re hitting the quarterback. We’re nailing the quarterback. … So as long as we keep bringing that heat, then everything should take care of itself.”
It did against the Bears the first time around, as the Lions’ offense exploded for five second-quarter scores and the defense did its part by forcing four turnovers while harassing Jay Cutler all afternoon, even as Chicago rallied late in a 40-32 loss at Ford Field.
Suh had his way that day with rookie guard Kyle Long, the first-round pick the Bears proudly touted as Suh insurance — “That’s their prodigy, their golden boy,” the Lions’ Pro Bowler said Wednesday — when they drafted him in April. Suh finished with two sacks and forced a Cutler fumble that Nick Fairley scooped up for a late-third quarter touchdown to effectively seal the win.
Cutler, who’ll return to the lineup Sunday just three weeks after suffering a torn muscle in his groin, had his worst game of the season that day. His worst game ever against the Lions, actually.
“And it’s even harder to watch now because you look at it and, you know, it’s just silly stuff that I was doing and that we were doing out there,” said Cutler, who added three interceptions to the costly fumble in Week 4.
But as silly as it might sound, that film review was hard to watch for Cunningham, too.
“I looked at a lot of tape this week, talked to (defensive line coaches) Kris Kocurek and Jim Washburn, and we are like inches away,” he said. “The first game against Cutler we got three sacks, but there should’ve been about five other ones.”
Implicit in that is a backhanded compliment, of sorts. Three-step drops and quick-trigger plays are part of the reason for the Lions’ low sack total. So is all the “chipper protection” they’re seeing from opponents — “Stuff they didn’t show all year,” Young said — with backs and tight ends staying in to help buy time in the pocket.
But clearly, some of it is on the Lions’ line, particularly the defensive ends. Ansah, the rookie, and Young, the first-year starter, have combined for a few dozen quarterback hurries thus far, but just five combined sacks. And with Ansah out, the Lions will be looking for even more Sunday from another rookie, Devin Taylor, who’ll likely make his first NFL start.
“It’s not about ability,” Cunningham said. “It’s about trusting yourself.”
And your instincts, said Young, who keeps preaching the same message to Taylor as the coaches do.
“Go,” he said. “Green light. Go. OK?”
'We're getting there'
OK, but it’d certainly help if they get Fairley going, too. And if they could keep him going, which has been the problem for much of his first three years in the league.
Fairley, the 2011 first-rounder, had a couple hits on Cutler and two more hurries in the first meeting with the Bears. He drilled Tony Romo twice in the win over the Cowboys before the bye week, too. (“When Fairley hit him the first time, I thought it was over,” Cunningham said. “He was not going to get up.”)
But Fairley hasn’t recorded a sack since the season-opening win against Minnesota, when he was dominating right up until he injured his troublesome right shoulder trying to chase down the Vikings’ Christian Ponder.
Fairley told me Friday the shoulder feels “a whole lot better” now than it did earlier this season.
“And now that I got past it, now that I’m rolling,” he added, “all I’ve gotta do is go up.”
And take the quarterback down.
“We know we’re getting there,” Fairley said. “We’ve just got to keep going, keep pushing. Because we know sooner or later, we’re going to break through.”