That might look like a nonsense headline. “The Detroit Lions need some pressure?” What regular season situation could be more pressure-packed than a Sunday night game in Week 17 for the division? The Lions will indeed face plenty of pressure as they take on the Green Bay Packers on New Year’s Night for all the marbles, at what is sure to be an insanely loud Ford Field. But that’s not the sort of pressure I’m getting at.
To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, let me paraphrase something I’ve said for a long time: “winning in the NFL is about having a bunch of guys on your side of the line who can knock the crap out of the guys on the other side of the line.” That is the first and foremost priority. A close second would be the quarterback. Everything else is third. Fortunately, new Lions’ GM Bob Quinn seems to understand this, as his 2016 draft showed, and as his New England Patriots pedigree would make you expect. But a ton of issues can’t be solved in one offseason, and the difference between the Lions’ defensive lines of 2014 and 2016 could easily be the difference in Sunday night’s game.
To illuminate further, let’s look at the 2014 game versus these same Packers at Ford Field. This one took place in Week 3. The Lions ultimately lost the division to Green Bay at Lambeau Field in Week 17 (ironic, with this year’s game in Lambeau taking place in Week 3 and the upcoming game for the division at Ford Field). But in Week 3 of 2014, the Lions defense put forth a performance no one saw coming. For a quick primer, check out these highlights:
On the day, the Lions’ D led the way to a 19-7 victory that included limiting Green Bay to 223 yards. Aaron Rodgers was never able to get comfortable in the pocket thanks to Ndamukong Suh and company up front. In something that would become a theme that season for the Lions’ defense, they held the Packers to 76 yards on the ground. Now, let’s take a look at where this defense ended up for that season.
When it was all said and done, the Lions ranked 3rd in scoring defense, only giving up 17.6 points per game. The passing defense ranked a bit above average in terms of yards allowed, giving up 232 yards per game for a ranking of 13th in the NFL. Now, here are the statistics that really explain what I mean by pressure. Detroit sacked opposing quarterbacks 42 times, good for 8th in the league. And finally, they held opponents to 69 rushing yards per game. Both that and the average yards per carry of 3.2 were best in the NFL, and makes their own shamefully bad running game that we’ve seen ever since the retirement of Barry Sanders look great by comparison.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Lions have fallen to middle of the pack against the run, giving up 103 rushing yards per game, which is 17th in the league. Worse, they rank a pitiful 29th in the NFL with only 25 sacks on the season. This chart, courtesy of Sporting Charts, shows that the Lions have no one ranked higher than 92nd in the NFL in hurries, which even further illustrates the depth of the problem up front. By the way, that would be Kerry Hyder, one of the last men added to the team.
Rewind back to 2014, and the Lions went a solid 11-5, potentially a historically terrible penalty call reversal away from winning their first playoff game since 1991. There was plenty of credit to go around. Matthew Stafford, though not yet the Top 10 quarterback who has emerged under the direction of Jim Bob Cooter in the past season and a half, led several late-game comebacks. Golden Tate stepped up in a major way with Calvin Johnson missing some games around midseason. On defense, DeAndre Levy had an outstanding year. The starting secondary was tough, with Darius Slay often shutting down opponents’ top receiver, Rashean Mathis defying his age on the other side of the field, and dependable safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo up the middle. Jim Caldwell, in his first year on the job, got the team to buy in and clean up many of the discipline issues that plagued them under Jim Schwartz (and most other head coaches in Lions’ history).
But the absolute key to that 11-5 finish was the defensive line. As the stats above showed you, Detroit had a defensive line that inspired fear in the opposition. Teams routinely triple-teamed Suh to avoid him hitting their QB. When Nick Fairley was lost for the season against the Falcons in London during Week 8, CJ Mosley stepped in and it was like nothing had changed. As it got later in the season, opponents didn’t even bother trying to run the football anymore. The Bears, for example, ran a total of 8 times in a blowout loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving. It was hopeless to accomplish much of anything against Detroit’s defensive front.
When it comes to this Sunday’s game, plenty is up for debate. We can debate about how much the Lions’ chances of winning increase if any of Darius Slay, Theo Riddick, or Travis Swanson are available (greatly, somewhat, and somewhat, in that order, in my opinion). We can debate about what should be the future of Jim Caldwell if they lose (I would give him one more year, in sharp contrast to my knee-jerk reaction after last year’s loss at Ford Field to Green Bay, because I really think the coaching staff has made the whole greater than the sum of the parts in 2016). We can debate about how bad the officiating is likely to be (well, it’s likely to be bad).
But there is no debate about this: the Lions need a 2014-esque performance from their defensive line in the worst way. They must make Aaron Rodgers uncomfortable in the pocket. That, to me, is the key to the game. Do that, and I expect a celebration that lasts well into the early hours of Monday morning. If the D-line fails to generate pressure on Rodgers, as has been the case against so many other QBs this year, it will likely be another heartbreaking end for Lions’ fans.