Shop for Detroit Lions gear at

Season in Review: Defensive Line

It’s difficult to accurately describe the Lions’ defensive performance over the last two years in words.  Groans, grunts and retching noises paint a better picture of their performance than words ever could.  The Lions were actually looking like a dominant defensive team back in early 2007 when they were among the league leaders in takeaways, sacks and were sitting at 6-2.  Since that point, the Lions have turned in some of the worst defensive performances in NFL history.

Most of it is traced back to terrible drafting and poor free agent acquisitions, but the single most devastating move for the Lions’ defense was the trade of Shaun Rogers.  Rogers was lazy and unmotivated at times, but the inability to get Rogers motivated has to be the biggest failing of former coach Rod Marinelli.  Defensive success is dictated by the defensive line in the NFL.  A strong defensive line creates pressure in the passing game, disrupts the running game and helps cover weaknesses in the back seven of the defense.  It is no coincidence that since the Lions traded one of the NFL’s elite defensive linemen they have delivered epically tragic defensive seasons.

The 2009 season saw the Lions defensive line make some slight improvement over 2008, but the unit is still the weakest position on the Lions’ defense.  The run defense surrendered over 170 rushing per game in 2008 (last in the league) and recorded 30 sacks (16th in the league.)  In 2009, they surrendered 126 yards rushing per game (25th in the league) but only recorded 26 sacks (29th in the league.)

The rush defense’s improvement and the decline in sacks is largely due to the personnel changes at defensive tackle for the Lions.  Gone were Cory Redding and Chuck Darby, two undersized pass rushing defensive tackles, replaced by Sammie Lee Hill and Grady Jackson, two enormous run stuffers.  Most fans think of defensive ends as the key components of a defensive line’s pass rushing ability, but defensive tackles play a much larger role especially in the Lions scheme.

The offensive line always strives to create a U-shaped pocket for the quarterback to pass in.  They accomplish this by pushing the defensive ends up the field and behind the quarterback.  Good defensive ends have pass rushing moves to counter the offensive lineman and work their way back to the quarterback, but if he has a good pocket formed he can step up away from them and get the throw off.  The Lions line their defensive ends up wider than most teams, which makes it easier for them to set up the offensive tackles for moves, but it also can make it easier for the tackles to form the pocket.  If the defensive tackles can’t get pressure up the middle, it allows the U-shaped pocket to form, if the tackles can get a push up the middle that prevents the pocket from forming and keeps the quarterback in the defensive ends’ sights.  The inability of the Lions to get an effective pass rush up the middle frequently left the defensive ends facing an uphill battle to get to the quarterback.

Here are some brief comments on each player and what direction the Lions will take in the offseason.

Dewayne White: White can be an effective pass rusher and he is stout against the run.  He has shown glimpses of being a double-digit sack player, but he can’t seem to stay healthy.  2009 was definitely his least productive year, but he was able to put pressure on the quarterback with 20 QB pressures in only 375 snaps played.  Giving him the fourth highest percentage of QB pressures per snap of any 4-3 defensive end.  2010 Season:  The Lions will look to add help at defensive end, but I am guessing that White will start at left end if the Lions don’t cut him for contract purposes and he’s healthy.

Jason Hunter:
Jason Hunter was  signed to provide depth and size at defensive end with very low expectations.  In fact, when I was doing my Impact of the Offseason article on defense I didn’t even bother to evaluate him.  Hunter finished second on the team in sacks with 5.0 and started nine games.  2010 Season: The Lions got solid production from Hunter, but he is a backup at best.  At this point, I would expect him to be back in 2010 as a backup.

Cliff Avril: Cliff Avril is mirroring the career of another high draft pick of Matt Millen’s, Kalimba Edwards.  Avril has the physical tools to be a great pass rusher, he has a long frame, great burst and he is an explosive athlete.  Edwards had all those traits as well.  Both players came on late in their rookie years and both struggle with injuries in their second years.  Avril has shown far more promise that Edwards did, but another trait that they share is a bothersome one.  Edwards was always criticized for his passive demeanor on the field, and some coaches firmly believed that lack of intensity prevented him from becoming a great player.  Gunther Cunningham recently voiced the same concern about Avril. 2010 Season: Avril is entering a make or break season, he has the ability to be an elite rusher, but he needs to stay healthy and step up his game.  He should return as a starter.

Turk McBride: Turk McBride was a late addition to the Lions roster after being released by Kansas City.  McBride was a defensive tackle, but the Chiefs asked him to cut weight and play outside linebacker in the 3-4.  When he signed with the Lions he moved back to defensive tackle, but then moved out to defensive end because of his size.  He was playing out of position and it showed in his performance.  2010 Season: If he can gain his weight back, has a good chance of making the team as part of the defensive tackle rotation.

Grady Jackson: Grady Jackson was signed to add bulk to the defensive tackle group.  He was one of the most explosive and disruptive tackles in the league a few years ago, but he is best suited as a big body to stuff the run at this stage in his career.  Jackson was signed to ideally play 15-20 snaps a game, but ended up playing about 30 a game and his performance suffered.  2010 Season: Grady will most likely return as a rotational run-stuffer.

Sammie Lee Hill: Hill was drafted as a raw project from a small school and wasn’t expected to contribute much in 2009.  He started 12 games and he played really well early in the season, suffered an ankle injury and didn’t play nearly as well the rest of the way through.  He still needs a lot of work on technique and has to improve as a pass rusher.  2010 Season: Hill has a lot of potential and it is up to him to put the time and effort in to develop his skills.  He should be a starter on Kickoff Sunday.

Landen Cohen: Cohen was drafted for the Tampa 2 system and does not really fit the new scheme as he is undersized.  He doesn’t fit in well at tackle and isn’t athletic enough to play end.  Cohen has a good motor and plays with energy, but I don’t think he has the ability to gain weight and improve his play.    2010 Season: I don’t see Cohen making the team, but watch for him to land with the Bears as he was a Marinelli favorite.

Andre Fluellen: Andre Fluellen was also drafted as a Tampa 2 defensive tackle, but he has much greater size and physical tools than Landon Cohen.  Andre played inside at tackle and outside at end during his career and seems to be developing as a strong run defender on the edge.  At 300 pounds, he is large for a defensive end and doesn’t have very good pass rushing ability from the outside especially in this scheme.  Both his sacks came from the tackle position.  2010 Season: Fluellen will either be asked to gain weight and play tackle or lose weight and play end.  I think he is a far better tackle than end and I expect he will make the team as a reserve.

Joe Cohen: Joe Cohen made the team on effort and youth.  The Lions gave him an opportunity to see if they could unearth a diamond in the rough.  I didn’t see many flashes of potential in 2009, and I think he is a fringe player at best.  2010 Season: I’d be shocked if he made the team in 2010.

Offseason Goal(s): The Lions will address the defensive line this offseason and will have some very good opportunities to do so.  Everybody expects the Lions to draft Ndamukong Suh  or Gerald McCoy with the second pick in the draft to bolster a weak defensive tackle group.  The draft is very deep at defensive line and the Lions will look to add some young talent in the middle rounds as well.  As far as free agency is concerned, there are some very solid options at defensive end including Julius Peppers, Aaron Kampman and Kyle Vanden Bosch.  I don’t expect the Lions will make a play for Peppers because of his work ethic and ridiculous contract demands, but if the coaching staff feels they could coax the effort from him, the Lions may make a play.  At tackle, I could see the Lions looking at Dwan Edwards, Justin Bannan or perhaps roll the dice on a player like Jimmy Kennedy or Tank Johnson.  I expect the Lions to add at least two lineman in the draft and perhaps one or two more in free agency.  The coaches know that it all starts up front and they can’t expect the defense to improve without getting significantly better in the trenches.

Enjoyed this post?
Subscribe to Lions Gab via RSS Feed or E-mail and receive daily news updates from us!

Submit to Digg  Stumble This Story  Share on Twitter  Post on Facebook  Post on MySpace  Add to  Bark It Up  Submit to Reddit  Fave on Technorati

Leave a Reply