Niyo: Rallying cry for Lions defense: 'Suh who?'

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The old guy is busy learning new tricks, which is easier said than done when you're dog tired.

But as Haloti Ngata, the new man in the middle on the Lions defensive front, discussed some of the finer points of his offseason transition Tuesday — specifically his presnap stance, of all things — he might as well have been speaking for the entire unit.

"It sounds so easy," he said, "but it really hasn't been for me."

And as easy as the Lions want to make it sound — picking up where they left off last season as arguably the NFL's best defense, despite subtracting perennial All-Pro tackle Ndamukong Suh and a few of his trusted sidekicks in the trenches — it really won't be.

Yet, that doesn't mean it can't be done. And that's what they're all out to prove this offseason: Suh who?

"I mean, Suh's not part of this team anymore," safety Glover Quin said, "so I'm not really concerned about that."

To a man, they all insist the same, citing the nine returning starters — only Suh and Nick Fairley are gone — and the return of coordinator Teryl Austin, who nearly landed an NFL coaching job elsewhere last winter. He's back, though, and so is his aggressive scheme, one that's more familiar to all but a handful of expected contributors.

"Guys know the coaches, coaches know the guys, guys know the system," said Quin, a Pro Bowler who thrived in Austin's system after missing most of last spring's work following ankle surgery. "Our starting point this year is a whole lot farther ahead than it was last year. So that gives me great confidence that this defense can still be real good."

Ansah is a key

Real good would be a step back for the Lions' defense, in many respects. That dominant unit ranked No. 1 against the run last season — one of the NFL's 10 best in history, statistically speaking — and among the league's top three in several other categories, including total yardage and points allowed.

But gone are players responsible for half of the team's 42 sacks, not to mention the lynchpin of that run defense in Suh, who played more than 850 snaps and probably drew that many double teams as well. As Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said, "There are few players that you have to have a plan for where they are every snap — Suh is definitely one of those guys."

Ngata isn't at this stage of his career. Nor are the other tackles on the roster, including Tyrunn Walker, second-year pro Caraun Reid — coaches were raving about him Tuesday — and rookie Gabe Wright. But the Lions, bolstered by a solid linebacker corps and a secondary that was much improved last year, think they might have another in defensive end Ziggy Ansah.

Finding an elite edge rusher isn't easy in today's NFL. Of the five first-rounders in the 2013 draft, only Ansah has emerged thus far. Dion Jordan, selected third overall, two slots ahead of Ansah, has as many suspensions as sacks (three) in the NFL. Ansah, already a strong run defender, had more sacks last season (7.5) than any of the others — Jordan, Barkevious Mingo, Bjorn Werner, Jarvis Jones — has in their careers.

And though it's fair to wonder just how Suh's absence will affect Ansah's pass-rushing production, it's also easy to see why it might not, even in a late-May practice without pads.

"There's not many guys like that in the league," said Ngata, who helped free up the likes of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil in Baltimore. "Just how freakishly athletic he is, it's amazing. I'm just excited to be next to a guy like that. He's definitely a guy that, if he can work hard enough, he can be an All-Pro."

Run stuffer

Still, it was the stifling run defense that made the Lions such a success a year ago, and "as long as I'm coaching here," Austin said, "that's gonna be our deal." Which is the primary reason the team made the deal for Ngata, a two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler who has been one of the game's best run stuffers the last decade.

"Hopefully, I can continue to help do that." said Ngata, acquired via trade from the Ravens in March almost immediately after Suh agreed to that record-setting free-agent deal with the Dolphins. "You have the core guys here. You definitely miss Suh and Fairley, but I'm here to try to ease that a little bit."

Ngata, 31, entering his 10th NFL season, says fitting in hasn't been a problem in Detroit — "You can tell they were a tight-knit group from last season," he said — though he admits it's tough to move a young family.

But settling in on the field will take some getting used to. The more narrow stance he's asked to use here in Detroit is a marked difference than the wider stance he used in Baltimore's hybrid two-gap scheme for most of the last decade.

"When you get fatigued, you get back to your old technique, your old ways of doing things," he said. "I saw it on film yesterday. I was seeing some of the technique of what I used to do in Baltimore."

Before, he was often asked to read and react. Now he's asked to penetrate, no questions asked.

"It's a change for me," said Ngata, who did plenty of moving around in Baltimore's front the last few years. "I've still got to get used to it. But so far I'm loving it."

And as stances go, with the regular season still 3 ½ months away, that's a pretty good starting point.