Ndamuknog Suh and Nick Fairley
are establishing themselves as an elite defensive front. [Rick Osentoski/AP]
"The two guys starting to give us real issues," Packers QB Aaron Rodgers told The MMQB last week, "are Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Really good players. Bright futures."
Opponents of the Detroit Lions found out how deadly that Suh-Fairley combo can be along the defensive line last season, in Suh's third NFL year and Fairley's second, when the pair combined for 13.5 sacks. They're likely just getting started too, with Fairley in particular starting to tap into his full potential.
The Lions plan to maximize their uses for Suh and Fairley in 2013. We've already seen exactly what that may mean.
The photo below shows off the Lions' typical set up front. They still utilize the "wide nine" formation with their defensive ends -- where the ends line up well away from the offensive tackles, off the outside shoulder of the tight end (or, in the case of the RE here, outside of where the tight end would be); the defensive tackles then align in the one-gap (between the center and guard) and three-gap (between the guard and tackle), respectively.
The Lions used this look Thursday night against the Browns, too, and will feature it on the majority of plays. This is their projected starting four, top to bottom: Jason Jones, Suh, Fairley and rookie Ziggy Ansah.
The wide nine can leave (and has left) the Lions susceptible to running plays between the tackles -- counter plays have proven particularly troublesome. What Detroit can do as well as just about any team in the league, though, is create push up the middle with Suh and Fairley driving opposing guards and centers back. But something that the Lions have started dabbling with, and a setup they showed against Cleveland flipped their positions, sliding Suh and Fairley outside to end spots, with Jones and Ansah pushing down as tackles.
One play on which the Lions unveil that attack Thursday, resulted in this:
That's Fairley (yellow box) driving around Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who enters 2013 with six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. Fairley, 6-foot-4 and 298 pounds, blew Thomas back several yards with a bull rush, then swung around him to hit Cleveland QB Brandon Weeden as he tried to dump one off to Trent Richardson.
Thomas is one of the best tackles in all of football but, quite simply, he does not see a lot of 300-pounders lined up directly over top of him. Even when facing, for example, some bulkier 3-4 ends, Thomas almost never would have to deal with one of those guys trying to beat him wide.
Suh was not as successful on this play against RT Mitchell Schwartz, but he too had helped to collapse the pocket, and he also provided a barrier between Weeden and Richardson.
“Both of those have end athletic abilities," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said of Suh and Fairley. "They are very strong guys, but they have enough speed that they can still close the distance. Something that we sort of have experimented around with in the past. Like you had mentioned, we did a little bit in this game.
"I think it is something that can be effective for us. A couple of our outside linemen also have inside rushing experience -- like Israel Idonije and Jason Jones. So it gives us flexibility for us to mix and match. That’s a position that we haven’t always had in the past. We weren’t able to do that because we would be a little weaker in the middle. It has chance to be a nice part of our rush package."
Consider yourself warned, offensive lines.
Another glance at what Weeden had to deal with as he dropped into the pocket on this play:
Not only was Fairley charging off his blindside and Suh making progress in front of him, but Ansah had driven guard John Greco back into Weeden's lap, while Jones occupied a pair of blockers near the line. Weeden really had nowhere to escape this rush and his time to scan the field evaporated quickly, resulting in the off-kilter pass attempt to Richardson.
Later in the game, as if to prove Schwartz's point about his "end athletic abilities", Fairley sniffed out a screen pass from the DT spot, then chased down Chris Ogbonnaya near the sideline.
Defensive tackles are not supposed to be about to do that, even when they can read and react to a screen quickly. Suh also pulled off a similarly impressive play against the Browns, tracking back to level Richardson nine yards downfield on a rush attempt.
The Lions could set Suh and Fairley inside for the entire season and have a leg up in most matchups. But Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham have an opportunity to mix and match their alignments in some unique ways, further tipping the scales in the Lions' favor.