Back when Nick Fairley suddenly showed up to training camp in a walking boot, I wrote a piece called “Nick Injured? It’s Fairley Insignificant.” In it I said not to PANIC:
The Lions’ defensive line must keep rolling waves, so they’ll need Fairley back—but not the way they needed Ndamukong Suh last season. Suh played a thousand snaps, nearly every single down the defense was on the field last season. Fairley was never going to carry that big of a load even if he showed up to camp in the best shape of his life, dominated every rep, and didn’t suffer so much as a paper cut. He’s an extremely talented player and he seems like a nice, fun-loving guy—but he doesn’t need to be an All-Pro for the Lions to have a good defense this year.
After five games, the Lions’ defense is fourth-best in the NFL, allowing just 17.8 points per game. The talent, skill, and depth of the defensive line has allowed the Lions to contain the run and snuff out the pass. They have 12 sacks, tied for 11th-best in the league—with nearly zero blitzing. The Lions’ Pro Football Focus team Pass Rush grade is +18.9, fifth-best. Clearly, the line has been fine with or without the #13 overall pick.
Early during the Monday Night game, Commenter Matt nudged me and said, “Dude, Fairley’s in.” I looked and saw that indeed, #98 was out there, rotating in for a snap or two. It continued throughout the night; Fairley seamlessly blended with Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams and Sammie Hill and Andre Fluellen.
Fairley got great penetration, fought off blocks, got in on some piles, and per Pro Football Focus had three quarterback pressures. He received a +2.4 overall PFF grade (+1.0 run defense, +1.3 pass rush, +0.1 penalty), amazing work for an 18-snap workload. The impact wasn’t seen but it was felt, as the Lions defensive line constantly rotated players in and out, staying fresh and keeping the pressure at a rolling boil for sixty minutes.
As I'm sure you saw earlier in the week, ESPN Stats & Information found that Cutler was under duress for 42.1% of his throws Monday Night, the highest for any single quarterback in any single game so far this year. Cutler performed incredibly well considering the pressure; any other quarterback might have gone down seven or eight times—or at least, thrown a lot more incompletions or interceptions.
But it’s more than just the defensive line.
Philadelphia fans and media alike are screaming for the Eagles to scrap the “wide nine,” a defensive system wherein the blindside pass-rushing defensive end lines up far outside their opposing offensive tackle, and the rest of the line shifts around to obtain maximum penetration and pass rush without blitzing. Adam Caplan of Scout.com explains:
Does all this sound familiar? It should, because it’s the exact same system the Lions use.
There’s a problem inherent in widening out that defensive line, then coaching them to aggressively penetrate. Trap blocks, counters, and end-arounds become extremely effective. Teams intent on running the ball will succeed. In a recent Detroit News article, Jim Schwartz explained how the Lions deal with this:
"We're vulnerable to trap blocks," Schwartz said. "You tell guys to get up field and rush the passer, they're going to be susceptible to the trap. But our linebackers are expected to play that. We don't want our guys slowing down and playing traps. Suh is an instinctive guy. He's seen those things before. If we are getting off the line the way we are supposed to, our linebackers should fill those (gaps) up."
Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, DeAndre Levy, and Bobby Carpenter have combined to do just that. Though opposing running backs are shredding the Lions’ defensive line for 4.78 YpC, the Lions have allowed only one rushing touchdown. Opposing running backs are getting through t the second level, but no further.
On the passing side of the ball, the Lions are one of the best defenses in the NFL. According to one of my favorite pass-defense metrics, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, the Lions’ pass defense is tied with the New York Jets for second-best in the NFL. Pro Football Focus grades the Lions pass rush fifth, and pass coverage No. 1.
In Detroit, the “wide nine” system is working perfectly. The strength, speed, depth and alignment of the Lions’ defensive line is putting heat on quarterbacks with almost no blitzing. The burden of stopping the run is almost entirely on the linebackers’ shoulders—and they’re getting the job done. The Eagles’ linebackers aren’t, and Nnamdi Asomugha is having to explain to reporters that contrary to appearances they do know how to tackle.
The back seven is also working in concert to take away quarterbacks’ safety blankets underneath, prevent being burned deep, jumping the medium routes to pick passes off and get the ball back to the offense. Where the Eagles gazillion-dollar “dream team” secondary is getting gashed on the ground and through the air, the Lions hand-picked cast of role players and reclamation projects is the best back seven in the NFL.