This is the third in a series of position previews in advance of Lions training camp. Today: Defensive line. See the roster breakdown in the gallery above or by clicking here.
Since the Lions drafted first-round defensive tackles in back-to-back years, Ndamukong Suh in 2010 and Nick Fairley in 2011, the defensive line has entered each season with high expectations.
The unit matched those expectations in 2011 as the Lions finished with 41 sacks, tied for 10th in the NFL. In 2012, though, the sack total dropped to 34, tied for 20th. And in 2013, despite the addition of first-round defensive end Ziggy Ansah, the sacks fell again to 33, ranking 28th.
But despite two lackluster seasons statistically, the Lions’ strength on defense will again be up front, and as new coordinator Teryl Austin installs his new scheme, increased blitzes could lead to improves stats.
With linebackers or defensive backs filling gaps, the defensive linemen should have better rush lanes, but they’ll need to take advantage quickly to take pressure off the suspect secondary.
Suh remains the centerpiece of the defense and is one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Suh had 54 quarterback hurries, second among tackles behind fellow All-Pro Gerald McCoy of the Buccaneers.
Suh is so good that he’ll continue to be double-teamed, which is why Fairley’s performance is so crucial to the Lions’ success. If he can stay at 295 pounds for the season, he should be more consistent and more likely to avoid injury.
With both Fairley and Suh entering contract years, there’s a chance the Lions give fifth-round pick Caraun Reid or another young tackle more play than expected this year as they consider their future.
At end, the Lions will have some injury concerns to start camp. Ansah did not participate in the offseason program after undergoing shoulder surgery in February, and Jason Jones missed most of last season after tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee.
Even if Ansah and Jones start the season healthy, the Lions will need to find production from their reserves with Willie Young now in Chicago. Devin Taylor played well as a rookie, and Darryl Tapp brings good experience. The new scheme with open and closed ends should also help create more one-on-one matchups as Jones will line up on the closed side across from the tight end.
Jones played just 2.5 games last year, and although he had just one tackle, he showed some reasons for optimism this season.
In Week 1, Jones was incredibly successful at sealing the edge in the run game, forcing Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to cut away from the primary hole multiple times early in the game, including once that led to a tackle for loss by linebacker Ashlee Palmer.
Jones also displayed a good power rush, pushing back the right tackle once to force a scramble by Christian Ponder.
But in Week 2 against the Cardinals, Jones was completely ineffective, twice being easily blocked by a tight end and overrunning a rushing play in the first series. He played some snaps at tackle in Week 2 and 3 with Fairley out. But besides two Week 2 rushes that resulted in a pass defensed and another that flushed Carson Palmer out of the pocket, he was mostly taken out of both games.
From his limited tape, Jones didn’t show much ability to win with his hands, and when he tried to move around blockers with his feet, he didn’t show the necessary speed to make up the time lost. If he focuses on his power rush and a strong seal on run plays, he should be better this season.
Lions training camp position previews
Monday: Defensive backs
Today: Defensive line