Rogers: Fearsome defensive line gives Lions best hope to make noise in NFC North
Allen Park — If you're looking for a place to firmly pin your hopes for the Detroit Lions in 2019, the team's defensive line is as good a place as any.
In a little more than a year, general manager Bob Quinn has done a masterful job reshaping the unit, giving coach Matt Patricia a wealth of talented pieces to deploy multiple fronts, which should keep opposing offensive coordinators awake at night.
"Defensive line right now is one of those groups — there’s a lot of positions within the positions if that makes any sense — so being able to have the multiplicity within a defensive line group always makes it difficult on the offense," Patricia said. "It puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback and on the center to identify who everybody is, what positions they play, and where they’re lined up, that really affects protections."
Mike Daniels is the latest addition to the loaded unit, the cherry on top of the reconstruction. The Lions allegedly beat out a dozen teams for Daniels' services after he was released Wednesday by Green Bay.
Even before signing Daniels, it could have been argued Detroit's defensive tackles were the team's most talented group. He rounds out a fearsome interior rotation, solidifying the group's established ability to stymie the run while bolstering the potential to generate pressure on the pocket.
A'Shawn Robinson, a second-round pick in 2016, is the only defensive lineman projected to make the roster who was with the team before last season. He was joined by former college teammate Da'Shawn Hand, a fourth-round draft pick from a year ago, and Damon "Snacks" Harrison, who Quinn heisted from the Giants at the trade deadline for a fifth-round pick.
Stopping the run is a top priority for Patricia, and Harrison proved to be the missing piece to that puzzle in 2018. In the six games before he came on board, the Lions were allowing opponents to gouge them for 5.3 yards per carry. After the trade, that average plummeted to 3.3 yards the final 10 weeks.
On the outside of the line, Quinn opened up the checkbook to lure edge rusher Trey Flowers to Detroit. Hypothetically, that move fills the Lions' Ziggy Ansah-sized hole with a highly productive, yet more durable option. Flowers has missed just three games the past three seasons.
Stylistically different than the man he's replacing, Flowers is well-rounded and fundamentally sound. While he's never recorded double-digit sacks in his career, he does have a knack for pressuring the quarterback, something the Lions lacked a year ago.
With Flowers giving Detroit more juice off the edge, and Daniels, who averaged 5.0 sacks from 2013-17, collapsing pockets from the inside, quarterbacks should be more uncomfortable when playing the Lions this season.
If Detroit's front can live up to expectations, the sky is the limit for the entire defense. In 2018, the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens were the only two defenses to finish in the top seven in yards per carry and quarterback pressure rate. Subsequently, they finished first and second in scoring and both won their division.
Similarly, the last time the Lions had a dominant defensive front, in 2014, the team finished first against the run, top-10 in sacks and third in scoring. That led to an 11-5 record and the closest the team has come to winning a division or playoff game in more than two decades.
Of course, it all looks good on paper. Yet it was only a year ago we were talking about the Lions having one of the best receiving trios in football. But by the end of the season, Marvin Jones was on injured reserve and Golden Tate was in Philadelphia. Best laid plans.
Through one week of training camp, we haven't even seen most of the pieces on the field, let alone playing together. Flowers remains on the physically unable to perform list, working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery. Harrison is on the non-footbal injury list after skipping the early portion of the offseason program trying to secure a contract extension. A'Shawn Robinson missed the week of practice tending to a personal matter, while Romeo Okwara, Devon Kennard and Da'Shawn Hand are dealing with various practice injuries. And Daniels is coming off a down year and a season-ending foot injury.
But if the stars align, and this group can get healthy and stay healthy, it's the best hope the Lions have at making a run at the NFC North crown this season.