In recent years, the Lions have never been looked upon as the type of defense that has quarterbacks tossing, turning and staring at their ceilings at night. Those days may quickly be coming to an end, however, thanks to a combination of young, home-grown talent and veteran pieces that have made their way into Motown via free agency.
The orchestrator behind this unit’s stark improvement over the past two years is defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who will undoubtedly be on every GM’s shortlist next January when teams will be looking to move in a “new direction” at their head coaching position.
The 51-year-old defensive mastermind employs a 4-3 scheme that requires lots of movement in its front seven. But he also mixes in several 3-4 looks and asks his linemen to execute a number of twists in order to penetrate the opposing backfield.
Last season saw the Lions lead the NFL in generating pressure on 54 percent of their crisscross stunting maneuvers. Overall, Austin’s gang of silver and blue marauders were tied for seventh with their division brethren Vikings in total sacks (43).
Where they came up short was in their run defense, as Detroit fell from being the number-one team against the run in 2014 to 19th. One reason for the notable regression was the defection of Ndamukong Suh to the AFC East.
Other factors that played key roles in this fade were injuries to both Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker. Ngata’s shoulder woes clearly limited the 32-year-old veteran during the early part of the year, while Walker’s season-ending lower-body injuries in Week 4 similarly didn’t help matters.
As the season wore on, Ngata began picking up steam and ended the year as a Top-15 interior lineman, according to Pro Football Focus. The former Raven is the rare 340-pound specimen that is both an immovable force and agile enough to find the ball and wreak havoc on the other side of the line.
Detroit’s defensive line closed the year in grand style by holding their opponents to an average of 81.6 yards on the ground from Weeks 15 through 17.
Also contributing on the interior part of Detroit defensive line was the New York City-born Caraun Reid, who delivered strong performances against top-level teams, such as the Vikings and Broncos during his sophomore year in the pros.
The rocked-up six-foot-two, 302-pound defensive tackle made strides as a power rusher by flashing the ability to fight off double teams in addition to using a variety of tricks to disengage from blockers, including his trusty arm-over move and shoulder dip.
Gabe Wright was a 2015 fourth-round pick who did little of consequence in his rookie campaign. He played in seven games and was a healthy scratch in six others. The former Auburn Tiger shows promising upper-body strength for inside trench battles, but lacks the type of lower-body explosiveness and ability to focus to be anything more than a rotational piece.
Kerry Hyder and former Packers bust Khyri Thornton will both be competing for roster spots this summer. Hyder is a developmental type who’ll need to show something soon. The versatile end/tackle has active hands and a high motor, but is somewhat lacking in the areas of technique and overall suddenness.
Thornton’s conditioning issues are well documented, but he did well enough in his six games last season to earn a chance to make the team in training camp. The Florida native has the kind of short-area burst that a number of coaches would love to work with, but he’ll need to do a better job of disengaging from blocks.
New GM Bob Quinn selected A’Shawn Robinson in the second round to further reinforce this part of the defense. The SEC import is a menacing six-foot-four, 312-pound man-child powerful enough to hold his own at the point of attack, but also possesses the range to make plays down the line.
The Lions are well stocked at defensive end, particularly on the right side with 2015 breakout performer
who ranked third in the league with 14.5 sacks. Just as impressive were the fourth-year veteran’s four-forced fumbles which are indicative of the kind of one-man-wrecking-crew performances he often delivered, as Packers offensive lineman Don Barclay can attest to.
The reason behind Ansah’s marked improvement is that he’s no longer relying solely on his physical tools to pressure the quarterback; his technique, particularly his hand skills, have become a major part of his pass-rushing arsenal.
Ansah’s length, elite burst and ability to swipe away the opposing blocker’s hands have turned this one-time raw prospect into one of the league’s premiere 4-3 ends.
To counter the defection of Jason Jones on the opposite side of the line, the Lions will be relying on the towering six-foot-seven Devin Taylor to assume a larger role. Judging by the 26-year-old’s contributions in 2015, Taylor should be primed for another fantastic showing this fall.
He posted seven sacks along with 35 tackles, nine of which resulted in a loss of yardage for the opposition. Blessed with 36-inch arms along with superior quickness and range, Taylor always had the measurables to become an above-average player, but the influence of Darryl Tapp in showing him how to prepare like a true professional has made a significant difference in the young edge defender’s development.
The 31-year-old Tapp was never re-signed and remains a street free agent. In order to make up for his veteran presence, Quinn has enlisted the services of pass-rushing specialist Wallace Gilberry.
When the ex-Bengal is on his game, he can provide pressure on the quarterback with his combination of burst and shoulder/hand maneuvers to wiggle his way free from opposing blockers. But at 31 years old, his best days appear to have passed him by, as he seems to lack the consistency he provided in his younger years.
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