Wojo: Lions' defense not messing around, messes up RG III

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Landover, Md. — It was only one quarter in an exhibition game, but the frenzy sure looked familiar. The Lions' defense was on the attack, and the opposing quarterback was on the run.

The Lions punished Robert Griffin III almost as badly as the media and public have pummeled him lately. If last week was all about Ameer Abdullah's unveiling, this was about the defense's unleashing. By midway through the second quarter, the Washington crowd was booing and Griffin was laying prone, hit after he fumbled, knocked out of the game with a concussion.

The final score in an exhibition game is mostly irrelevant, and Washington did rally with backups Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy for a 21-17 victory Thursday night. Generally, only the first quarter offers legitimate clues, and the Lions rendered Griffin and his offensive line clueless, building a 10-0 lead before the reserves took over. At that point, Washington had collected exactly 16 yards on four possessions, including minus-8 passing because of three sacks.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has talked about getting creative, finding more ways to get pressure without that big Suh guy in the middle. That means more blitzing, more aggressiveness and lots of defensive tackles rotating in and out. The Lions may have lost Ndamukong Suh, but they're not ready to give up their mauling identity.

Tyrunn Walker and Ziggy Ansah clobbered Griffin for the first sack, which was key, considering fellow tackle Caraun Reid left moments earlier with an ankle injury. Any injury dampens things, and the Lions hope Reid and offensive guard Larry Warford (ankle) aren't seriously hurt. Jim Caldwell called them "nicked up," and said he might know more in the next day or two.

'Strength in numbers'

A few things looked nicked up, including the Lions' backups, whose sloppy run defense contributed to Washington's comeback. The first-team offense also hit some bumps, although Matthew Stafford completed six of eight passes for 78 yards. He failed to convert a couple third downs and was out after the second series, just enough to sweat hard on a humid night.

On defense, the Lions' first- and second-teamers shredded Washington's line and thoroughly befuddled Griffin. Part of that came from the blitzing, including a highlight hit by linebacker DeAndre Levy directly to Griffin's chest on an incompletion. Reserve defensive end Phillip Hunt delivered another vicious blow, and tackle Jermelle Cudjo was part of a crushing, multiple-man sack.

Apparently, Cudjo has picked up on the rabid-dog reputation of the Lions' defensive line. With starters Haloti Ngata and Jason Jones nursing injuries, a lot of unproven guys are getting their shots in. Yes, that was the new No. 90, rookie tackle Gabe Wright, jumping on the fumble after Corey Wootton jumped on Griffin. Obviously, one player won't replace Suh, but nine of 11 starters on the second-ranked defense are back, including the linebackers and the entire secondary.

"We got a lot of (defensive tackles) that can do those things, strength in numbers," Walker said. "We got a unit that can be great, if we work on it. Sky's the limit."

It's way too early to suggest Suh won't be missed, but it's fair to rethink the notion of a precipitous drop-off. Levy was asked about that possibility, that the defense could be almost as good in different ways, using more weapons such as blitzing linebackers and safeties.

"It's all based on what we did last year," Levy said before the game. "If we come out this year and don't perform up to our standards, all the talk means nothing."

Putting up and shutting up

Under Caldwell, the Lions don't do a lot of talking, which can be a sign of maturity, or perhaps self-confidence. The defense certainly is sick of hearing about the Suh fallout, just as many are sick of hearing about Griffin's hype.

The fourth-year quarterback created a mini-stir last week by saying, "I feel like I'm the best quarterback in the league, and I have to go out and show that." That silly boast didn't exactly impress a fan base that thinks a backup — Cousins or McCoy — might be better prepared to lead.

That's not the Lions' concern. In fact, they pretty much treated Griffin with disdain, tossing him aside repeatedly. On eight dropbacks, he was hit six times, sacked three times and had one pass batted down by Tahir Whitehead.

Washington's Jay Gruden said Griffin was being treated for a concussion, and he had no idea when he'd be able to play. He also sounded like a coach who had no idea what hit his team.

"It was not a very good performance for our first-team offense, to say the least," Gruden said. "(But) Detroit was the number-two-ranked defense in the league last year. They're a good team, a very good defensive football team."

It didn't matter to Gruden that his team actually, technically, won, because images of defenders hammering his quarterback might linger. For the Lions, it doesn't necessarily mean a ton because Griffin and the Washington offense have major issues. But it was important to see — at least for one brutish quarter — that the Lions defense still can make a quarterback look brutal.