LIFE WITHOUT SUH
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
If you were judging the Lions' defense simply by the players general manager Martin Mayhew brought in this off-season, the outlook would be a rosy one. Mayhew added Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and he picked up a couple of promising youngsters at the same position in ex-Saint Tyrunn Walker and fourth-round pick Gabe Wright. He also bolstered Detroit's secondary by drafting two cornerbacks (Alex Carter in the third round and Quandre Diggs in the sixth) and re-signing steady veteran Rashean Mathis. In addition the Lions will get back starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and second-year outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, both of whom missed significant parts of last year with injuries.
These are all reasons to be excited—until you are reminded that this off-season the Lions also lost Ndamukong Suh. Detroit built its defense around Suh from the moment they drafted the tackle at No. 2 in 2010. That unit peaked last year, ranking third in scoring defense and second in total defense—bests for the franchise since 1983 and '70, respectively.
But Suh left for Miami in March, signing a six-year, $114 million contract that, while it could eventually hamstring the Dolphins' books, is not incongruous with the defensive tackle's value. Shy of somehow swiping J.J. Watt from Houston, Mayhew was not going to find a comparable line talent.
The Lions are adamant that the Suh setback has been overblown, and that this year's defense could be better than last year's. It's like George Costanza used to say: "It's not a lie if you believe it."
For Detroit to stay on beat, several things have to happen, beginning with Ngata still being a fierce run-stuffer at age 31. The 345-pound former Raven will serve as an anchor on early downs, and he has a set of linebackers behind him—including Tulloch, Van Noy and the outstanding DeAndre Levy—that can clean up on running plays if Ngata stands his ground.
It's against the pass, though, that the departures of Suh and 2011 first-rounder Nick Fairley (who signed with the Rams) will be felt the most. Suh generated 37 hurries last season and averaged 7.2 sacks during his five years with the Lions, while Fairley had 17 hurries and averaged 3.4 sacks. Now Detroit will look for pressure from the ex-Saint Walker, signed on the cheap for one year and $1.75 million. He doesn't have great raw strength, but he is quick off the snap. Caraun Reid, a '14 fifth-round pick, has similar potential. And Devin Taylor saw reps inside during OTAs and at training camp; the 6'7" third-year player could increase Detroit's flexibility along the line.
But even if all those moves work out, the Lions will still have to create pressure from elsewhere. With Suh, Detroit could afford to take a basic approach to the pass rush because the Suh-led front four regularly collapsed the pocket. This allowed the seven other Lions to drop into coverage. In 2013, the final year of Jim Schwartz's Detroit regime, the Lions blitzed on just 18.3% of their snaps, per Pro Football Focus, second fewest in the league. Last year under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, that number rose to 24.9%, which was 11th fewest in the league. This year Austin could dial up even more blitzes, perhaps making use of Van Noy, who had 13 sacks as a college junior, or safety James Ihedigbo, who had two sacks and two QB hurries on just 26 pass-rush attempts last season.
Asking linebackers and/or defensive backs to get after the quarterback will risk exposing Detroit's coverage defenders. Either way, though, the secondary will feel the heat. Football's version of the chicken-or-egg debate centers on defensive lines and defensive backs. Is it pressure up front that allows a secondary to thrive, or does a stout secondary create sacks by taking away receivers? Most would say that in Detroit, it's the D-line that has been making the DBs look good in recent years.
Mayhew had been quietly prepping his roster for the possibility that Suh would leave. The offense should be more balanced this year behind a physical line, and that will help limit the defense's time on the field. The defensive back seven is deeper than it has been in ages.
But what if Suh really was that good? What if the Lions cannot patch the hole his absence creates? Then all of Mayhew's work will have been for naught.
SI'S PREDICTION: 6--10
ANDY BENOIT ON WHAT THE LIONS' AERIAL GAME NEEDS
Under previous coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions often put up big offensive numbers in losing efforts. Last season, while adjusting to the system of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Detroit fell to 19th in yards and 22nd in points, but it still made the playoffs riding a top-ranked run defense that also had a menacing four-man rush. With Detroit losing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, however, Matthew Stafford and his offense will have to be more proficient. The question is, now that Stafford is in his second year in Lombardi's scheme, will he continue with his newfound discipline or will he revert to his old wild-stallion ways? Stafford can make every throw—even the ones he shouldn't attempt—but Lombardi doesn't want to play that way. He focuses on balance with the running game, diversity with screens and conservative pass protections. Stafford has a strong receiving duo in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, but he needs a third target to emerge—preferably '14 first-round tight end Eric Ebron (above), who had only 25 receptions as a rookie but has the size and the athleticism to force tough matchup decisions. Without someone stepping up, the Lions' offense will struggle to offset what its defense has lost.