NFC North: Nick Fairley

Nick Fairley is committing himself to weight loss, and this is exactly what Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew had in mind.

Fairley
Mayhew said from the beginning when he chose not to pick up Fairley’s fifth-year option that this was going to be a motivational push for the talented defensive tackle. He hoped by not having anything guaranteed after this season, Fairley would turn into the player the Lions expected when they drafted him in 2011.

It also came with a risk – that Fairley would turn into the player the Lions wanted and then they wouldn’t be able to afford him when free agency came calling after this season. It would appear, judging from the Detroit Free Press story Saturday, that Fairley is at least going to attempt to do that.

The newspaper said he is down to 295 pounds, which will likely make him faster and able to have a quicker first step against interior linemen. He also told the paper he is going to keep with his diet, and that is going to be key for any Fairley consistency on the field this fall.

Remember, this is a player who has as much natural ability – if not more – than Ndamukong Suh, who the Lions are trying to re-sign this offseason as he enters the final season of his contract. If he transforms into the always-there player Detroit needs, it could finally give the Lions what they were desiring when they drafted Suh and Fairley in back-to-back seasons at the start of the decade.

They built a 4-3 system around the strength and potential unblockable nature of the defensive line for former defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. But it never truly worked under Cunningham because of the lack of consistency from Fairley, among other things.

If Fairley is faster and less blockable, it might force teams to pick between Suh, Fairley and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah as to who to double. This should lead to more rush lanes for all three of those linemen along with anyone else new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is going to send at opposing quarterbacks.

If it works and if Fairley stays both healthy, in shape and motivated, it could give Austin the aggressive, attacking defense his players have boasted about over the past few weeks.

Lions offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
10:00
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

 
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Detroit Lions' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeTate
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWith Golden Tate flanking Calvin Johnson, the Detroit wide receiver depth has greatly improved.
Best move: The Lions desperately needed to upgrade their wide receiver corps and making Golden Tate the biggest priority of the free-agent period ended up being a smart move for the club. They signed a player who can complement Calvin Johnson as well as having some of the best hands in the league. As a bonus, he is a really competent blocker who plays above his size.

Riskiest move: Detroit opted to not go after an impact cornerback during free agency and then waited until the fourth round to draft one earlier this month. Why is this a risk? It means Detroit is trusting that one of its unproven cornerbacks (Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood) or one of the players who was inconsistent last season (Chris Houston, Darius Slay) will be prepared to make the jump or return to form in 2014.

Most surprising move: The Lions declined Nick Fairley’s fifth-year option for a seemingly baffling reason. Detroit wanted to use it to try to motivate the talented but inconsistent defensive tackle to improve his game. In doing so, they essentially could be letting him walk out the door. There was no downside for Detroit in picking up Fairley’s option. It is not a guaranteed option and considering the unresolved contract situation surrounding Ndamukong Suh, it could leave the Lions without either of their top two defensive tackles come 2015.

Everything focused on Stafford: One of the biggest themes of the offseason was finding help for quarterback Matthew Stafford, now entering his sixth season with Detroit. The Lions signed him a new target in Tate, drafted him a new tight end in Eric Ebron and brought back a familiar comfort player in Brandon Pettigrew. It hired a coaching staff full of quarterback experience, from head coach Jim Caldwell (worked with Peyton Manning) to offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (worked with Drew Brees) to quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter (worked with Manning). In a league driven by quarterback play, the Lions placed a lot of their 2014 focus on making sure Stafford can do as well as he can.
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The Detroit Lions opened their organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday at their practice facility in Allen Park, Michigan.

The media will watch Wednesday’s session, and here are five things to pay attention to as this part of the offseason begins.

1. What's going on with Suh?

Ndamukong Suh has been the main topic of the entire offseason, from his contract situation to missing the beginning of offseason workouts. But Suh is back in town, and how he ends up interacting with everyone will be something to watch.

Dominic Raiola said Monday night he was looking forward to seeing him -- and there’s a good chance the young defensive players are feeling the same way. There have been some questions about Suh getting up to speed with the defense, but he has never shown up out of shape and there is no reason to think Suh will not be in shape this time around, in what could end up being a contract year for him. Now his storyline can shift back to whether he signs an extension with the Lions.

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2. What does Nick Fairley look like?

Saw Fairley briefly the first day of offseason workouts in April. He didn’t talk to the media then and he was wearing a baggy shirt, so it was difficult to tell what he looked like. He’s always been able to play with a lot of weight, though, so that shouldn’t be an issue.

What type of shape he’s in -- and how motivated he is after the Lions chose not to pick up his fifth-year option earlier this year -- will be the major questions surrounding him. Fairley is now playing for his second NFL contract, either in Detroit or elsewhere, and money can be a motivating factor for a lot of players.

Stafford
Stafford
3. What will the offense look like?

Since Detroit hired Joe Lombardi as the team’s offensive coordinator, much has been made about the Lions looking like a northern version of the high-powered New Orleans Saints. It is part of the reason the team drafted North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron in the first round and brought in Golden Tate in free agency. The Lions should have every offensive piece they will need from a skill position standpoint. How quickly Matthew Stafford and his group pick up the offense will be interesting. While there won’t be a ton of clues Wednesday, by the end of the mandatory minicamp in June, there should be a clue as to what Detroit could look like in the fall.

4. What's going on at the corners?

Chris Houston won’t be out there and may not be ready by training camp. Martin Mayhew has indicated this is a big season for the young, developing corners the team does have -- Jonte Green, Chris Greenwood, Bill Bentley and Darius Slay, the last of who is thought to be a potential starter this fall. If that quartet can make the necessary improvements, perhaps cornerback won’t be as big an issue as it has been the past few years. Also curious to see where the team uses Rashean Mathis. The veteran, if he can play as he did a season ago, could provide relief either in the slot or on the outside.

5. How does the team respond to coach Jim Caldwell?

So far, the players have said all the right things and acted in all the right ways. However, it’ll be interesting to see the pace of his practices and the way he interacts with the players during practice. He was brought in to be a calming, more disciplined influence on a team that went through a lot of penalty issues in prior seasons. Expect the team to believe in Caldwell heading into this season -- he proved in his opening news conference he can be fiery in certain situations -- and to be happy to have another fresh-type start.
The NFL draft is less than a week away, which means soon enough the Detroit Lions will have to reveal whether all of their Sammy Watkins attention and visits from Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack had substance or were designed to throw everyone off.

But the draft will be more than just one round for the Lions, who will need to use the three days in May to build depth on a roster that is big on stars but small on those players beyond the big names that can turn the Lions into a playoff team.

Every day up until the first day of the draft, we'll look at a different position grouping and see what Detroit has and what the team could end up looking for during the 2014 draft.

Today continues with the defensive line.

Previous previews

Players Lost: Willie Young, DE (signed with Chicago); Israel Idonije, DE (signed with Chicago)

[+] EnlargeDonald
AP Photo/Don WrightTaking Aaron Donald at No. 10 would provide the Lions with insurance in case Ndamukong Suh or Nick Fairley is not back in 2015.
Players Signed: George Johnson, DE; Kourtnei Brown, DE; Darryl Tapp, DE/OLB; Vaughn Martin, DT; Corvey Irvin, DT.

Players on the roster: Defensive ends: Ezekiel Ansah; Jason Jones; Devin Taylor; Tapp; Brown; Johnson. Defensive tackles: Ndamukong Suh; Nick Fairley; C.J. Mosley; Andre Fluellen; Martin; Irvin; Jimmy Saddler-McQueen; Xavier Proctor.

Draft priority: Medium

Potential Rounds: Any

Players who have visited or the Lions have met with: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina; Larry Webster, DE, Bloomsburg; Denico Autry, DE, Mississippi State (per Detroit Free Press).

Analysis: It is an interesting situation when it comes to the Detroit defensive line, in part because the player the Lions should take in the first round could end up being available at the slot. It might not, though, be the player the Lions will take.

If Aaron Donald, the defensive tackle from Pittsburgh, is sitting at No. 10 and no unexpected players like Mike Evans are still available, the Lions should take him even though they have Suh and Fairley. The reasoning behind it is simple.

By taking Donald, the Lions would provide more depth up front in the present and also provide themselves with a potential replacement for either Fairley or Suh should either one not return to Detroit after the season. Worst case for Detroit, if both Suh and Fairley somehow returned, the Lions could have even more flexibility on the defensive line and truly have the best defensive front four in the NFL.

Donald may be the best player available at that point as well.

Even if the Lions pass on Donald, they will almost assuredly take a defensive tackle at some point this week because the team's top six defensive tackles -- and every non-practice squad defensive tackle -- will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Detroit needs to add a rush end, too, and Anthony Barr could be an option there in the first round. Larry Webster could be a late round pick to watch. He's a project, but he could fit in well with what the Lions have already in Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor at the position.

Of all reasonable options, I'd take: As mentioned above, if Donald is available, that is who I would take in Round 1. I don't think the Lions would do this -- my bet would be they bolster the secondary -- but Donald is a difference-maker.

Should that happen, the Lions could use a fourth-round pick on Webster as well and really solidify the defensive front the team tried to build the entire defense around.

Possible targets: Donald, Webster, Barr, Dee Ford, DE, Auburn; Aaron Lynch, DE, South Florida; Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas; Dominique Easley, DT, Florida; Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State; Kelcy Quarles, DT, South Carolina; Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU.

A week ago, Detroit Lions team president Tom Lewand said the plan for the team was to win now and that he didn’t have a five-year plan in place.

The five-year plan bit triggered something almost as soon as he said it -- and it popped up again after general manager Martin Mayhew said the team wouldn’t be picking up the fifth-year option on defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

Fairley has been a maddening player for Detroit. He has first-round talent, but has not been able to put any of that together consistently, which appears to be why the Lions have made this decision, especially since keeping him around would have cost $5.5 million in 2015.

Mayhew told reporters this move is to motivate Fairley for this season -- and this is where the five-year plan problem comes in again. Planning, though, has the history of backfiring from time to time. This is what the Lions have to hope doesn't happen now that they are going to take a massive risk on their future in order to win now.

While it is good to be adaptable and flexible, the Lions have now put themselves in a position where there is a chance they could lose both of their starting defensive tackles -- the same tackles they spent first-round picks on in 2010 and 2011 -- at the end of next season. Theoretically, after the threat of possibly losing Ndamukong Suh, they could also lose their top three tackles as C.J. Mosley is also in the final year of his deal.

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This puts immense pressure on Detroit to make sure it gets a deal done with Suh, and while the Lions appear confident it will happen -- they could have waited before making a decision on Fairley. Now, if negotiations with Suh aren’t fruitful over the next few months, a defense built solely around a strong front four would be losing its most critical interior pieces.

Those are decisions that can blow up plans for a coaching staff and an organization if they get it wrong.

When it comes to Fairley, this feels like it could mean 2014 is the final season he is in Detroit. If Fairley responds well to this somewhat bizarre motivational tactic, he could then choose to test free agency and see what his market value is. If he doesn't respond, he is gone anyway.

As long as the team retains Suh, they can handle that.

But there is the doomsday for Detroit option in play now. Suh chooses to leave. Fairley plays well and also decides to bolt. And now there is a gaping hole in the middle of the Lions' defensive line that will need to be rebuilt with immense speed.

Why?

It goes back to Lewand and the need to win now. This decision backs up his statement of not having a five-year plan and of having immense urgency to win now. Sometimes what makes sense in the short term doesn’t work for the long term and in this case, the Lions need to hope they are right with this decision.

Otherwise a lot more than one player might need to be overhauled.
Every day we’ll take a look at one of the Detroit Lions heading for free agency, what he has meant to the team before and a prognosis on whether or not he’ll be back with the club in 2014.

To see the Meet the Free Agents series thus far, click this link.

Free agent to be: Andre Fluellen

Position: Defensive tackle

Age: 28

Years in the league: 6

What he made last season: $457,059 (cap value); $588,824 (cash value); $715,000 (base salary).

What he did last season: Fluellen played a reserve role after joining the Lions following the season-ending injury to Jason Jones. In 13 games, Fluellen made three tackles. He averaged 12.1 snaps a game in relief of starting tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

His potential market value: Little. He’s a good locker room guy and someone who can be a player that can be brought in at the veteran minimum to whatever team, but he likely won’t be getting more than that from any of the NFL teams.

Will he fit the Lions still: General manager Martin Mayhew didn’t rule out a potential return for Fluellen, but the market for him is not high and the team can wait to see what other options are out there that might be more effective than Fluellen has been in his career, where he has 55 tackles in 69 games and 2.5 career sacks -- although none since 2010.

What happens: Fluellen won’t be a high priority free agent for Detroit, but he would likely still be available for the team should they choose to bring him back after exploring other options. He has spent the majority of his career with the Lions and continually returns to the team after being released. As mentioned before, he is a good character guy who can provide a good influence to both Fairley and Suh in the locker room, along with the other younger defensive linemen the team has brought in over the past few years. If he does return, it likely won’t be until a bit later in free agency.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
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DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 23-20 loss in overtime to the New York Giants.

What it means: In many ways, this was a fitting end to Detroit's season: a fourth-quarter turnover returned for a touchdown to tie the game, the Lions choosing to play for overtime instead of taking a shot of getting in field goal range on the last drive of regulation, then seeing their season end on a winning field goal in overtime.

This loss epitomized so many of the Lions' problems this season -- the turnovers, the questionable clock management and play calling and, ultimately, a collapse that saw Detroit go from controlling its own destiny to out of the playoffs in six days.

Yes, the Lions have one more game to play -- on the road at Minnesota -- but they are now out of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Jim Schwartz, and the Lions might be close to a coaching change.

Stock Watch: Rising -- Nick Fairley. The defensive tackle has games where he disappears. Then he plays like he did Sunday, where he recorded a safety and had multiple pressures on New York quarterback Eli Manning. Falling -- Matthew Stafford. Another game, the same problems over and over again. He threw another fourth-quarter interception -- this time a pick-six to Will Hill -- that took a seven-point Detroit lead and turned it into a tie game.

The case for Bell: After Reggie Bush lost another fumble -- his second since guaranteeing he wouldn’t fumble again this season in November -- Joique Bell received the majority of the work for the Lions in the backfield. Not surprisingly, Bell played well. He scored Detroit’s first touchdown of the game and kept the Lions in the game while the rest of the offense looked listless. He finished with 91 yards rushing and 63 yards receiving, and should make the Lions at least think about who should receive the majority of carries for Detroit the rest of this season and possibly beyond. He runs hard, smart and with patience.

What's next: The Lions have their season finale on Sunday at Minnesota.
Justin Tuck and Matthew StaffordGetty ImagesJustin Tuck, left, and the Giants will be trying to end the playoff hopes of Matthew Stafford's Lions.
It is a battle of disappointments on Sunday at Ford Field: the New York Giants, who have been disappointing all season, against the Detroit Lions, who have been one of the more surprising teams over the second half of the season -- in a bad way.

The Giants have no playoff hopes. The Lions need to win their final two games and then hope for help (i.e., losses) from Green Bay and Chicago.

Taking you through Sunday’s matchup are ESPN.com NFL reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Dan Graziano (Giants).

Rothstein: The Giants have struggled all season, and Eli Manning has been at the forefront of that. What has changed there?

Graziano: It's basically just a complete bottoming-out on all fronts, starting with the protection. A line that wasn't great to begin with is down two starters and has been playing a rookie at right tackle all season. The blocking help the line used to get from running backs and tight ends disappeared when the Giants let Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett leave in the offseason. Hakeem Nicks has had a terrible year at receiver, playing like he is more worried about staying healthy in advance of free agency than trying his best to win. There has been no run game at all for long stretches. And Manning has failed to elevate above his miserable circumstances, missing too many throws and too often looking as though it has all been too much for him. It's been a total whitewash of a season for the Giants' offense. They are the only team in the league that has been shut out even once this season, and they've been shut out twice.

What is the deal out there in Detroit? To my eyes, the Lions should have put this division away by now with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having been out for so long. What is the main reason they seem to have squandered such a great opportunity?

Rothstein: I don't know whether there are enough words to describe all that has gone on, although the simplest way to put it would be consistent end-game meltdowns, either from turnovers, coaching decisions or a defense that suddenly faltered.

A lot of it has to do with Matthew Stafford, who has had accuracy issues in the second half of the season. Really, there have been issues everywhere but the lines, from turnovers to coverage breakdowns on defense.

This is a team that should be safely in the playoffs right now instead of needing to win out and get help.

That obviously leads to job-security questions for Jim Schwartz. Although that doesn't seem to be the case for Tom Coughlin, has this season given any indication as to how much longer he plans to be on the sideline?

Graziano: No, Coughlin is really a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy. He's completely believable when he insists he's focused on only this week's game and doesn't want to address anything beyond this season. People close to Coughlin insist he won't quit as long as he feels he can still do the job, and there is no indication he feels otherwise. He has as much passion and energy as anyone else in the building (and right now, more than most!). I don't think Giants ownership would fire him, and I'd be stunned if he got into the offseason and decided he was done. As one person close to him told me, "He has no hobbies. There's nothing for him to retire TO." At 67 years old, he understands why the questions get asked, but he doesn't view himself as near the end of a career, I don't think. As of now, he plans to be part of the solution here, and it would be a major upset if he wasn't back in 2014.

One of Coughlin's biggest immediate problems is keeping his quarterback from getting killed. How is that Detroit pass rush looking these days?

Rothstein: Eli, meet Ndamukong. He will be the guy tossing you to the ground today. In all seriousness, though, the Lions' pass rush has been interesting. The Lions have been great at applying pressure (other than against Pittsburgh) but don't have the actual numbers to show for it, which can be confusing.

What teams have done is bottle the middle on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and have either a tight end or running back help on either Willie Young or Ziggy Ansah on the ends.

So to answer your question, it has been OK, but not the consistently dominant force some were expecting.

That leads into my last question. The Lions' run defense, headed by that front, has been one of the best in the league this season. Have the Giants figured any way to solve their run woes?

Graziano: Andre Brown was hot for a while when he came back from his injury, and the offensive line was starting to block better for the run. But the past two weeks have seen a step backward, and the way the line is configured now, with starting left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backups rotating in and out at left guard, has left it very vulnerable and one-dimensional. The Giants were able to take advantage of some good matchups with Brown running well, but against tougher fronts like the one they saw against Seattle last week, they struggle. I imagine they will struggle against the Lions' front in the run game as well.

Two straight disappointing games for Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Do you expect Megatron to blow up this week and victimize the Giants' secondary?

Rothstein: Kind of. As cornerback Rashean Mathis told me this week, if the Lions don’t find their urgency now, they’ll never find it this season. So I’d imagine you would see Johnson -- who is Detroit's best player -- at the forefront of that if the Lions have any shot over the next two weeks. Plus, those two drops he had against Baltimore will gnaw at him all week long. I expect he’ll have a big game.

Stafford, on the other hand, I’m not as sure about because he seems genuinely rattled this second half of the season. Detroit needs to find what was working for him at the start of the season and bring that back, otherwise its season is over.

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It took three quarters, but Philadelphia finally began going to its zone-read rushes in the fourth quarter on Sunday during the Eagles’ 34-20 win against Detroit.

And it changed the game.

Perhaps no play shifted things more than LeSean McCoy's 57-yard run in the fourth quarter, a touchdown where Detroit’s once-stout run defense fell completely apart, part of a fourth quarter when the Lions couldn’t stop anything or any rusher the Eagles used.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Michael PerezLeSean McCoy ran past Detroit's Louis Delmas, 26, on his way to a 57-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
It was the second big touchdown rush of the game for Philadelphia, and was the last time the Lions had the lead Sunday.

Everything Detroit tried to do on the play essentially failed.

The Eagles lined up in shotgun with 13:24 left in the fourth quarter and the Lions up, 20-14. They had McCoy to the right of quarterback Nick Foles and three receivers to the left side, the side McCoy would eventually try to run to.

Detroit had its nickel package on the field, including two defensive backs playing within two yards of the line of scrimmage. Foles snapped the ball and used a zone-read to eventually give the ball to McCoy moving forward behind the left side of his offensive line.

At the time the ball was snapped, the Eagles' offensive line also had a good jump on the Detroit defensive front. Nick Fairley was blocked wide to open the hole for McCoy, and he was also blocked into linebacker DeAndre Levy, essentially taking him out of the play as well.

This was only the start of Detroit’s issues on the play.

“It was just a missed run fit, somebody was in the wrong gap and they split us,” Levy said.

This opened up a hole for McCoy, who was already at the second level and almost the third level of the defense. This was what he did much more effectively in the fourth quarter -- he essentially made one cut and then accelerated forward.

Meanwhile, the Lions were struggling with assignments and tackles.

“They lost gap integrity a couple times,” Philadelphia center Jason Kelce said. “That’s when you saw Shady (McCoy) get those big runs.”

Once McCoy got past the initial line, Stephen Tulloch was slow on his read of the run, taking him out of the play. Ndamukong Suh appeared to be held early on the play as well, but he likely wasn’t going to be able to get there fast enough to make the play at the line.

What turned this particular run into a touchdown was receiver Jason Avant. The veteran was downfield and had Detroit nickel back Bill Bentley blocked well. What sealed the touchdown was the angle safety Louis Delmas took to the ball.

It appeared Delmas was heading the opposite direction of McCoy anyway, but then Avant blocked Bentley into Delmas, knocking him off track as well. Delmas then tried to catch McCoy, as did Willie Young from the back side of the run on the line, but neither could catch him.

“Missed tackles, missed tackles,” Delmas said. “You’ve got to find a way to get the ball on the ground. You’ve got to grab cloth or pick up a snowball and hit him in the back of the head with it.

“But you’ve got to find a way and we didn’t.”

Young actually ended up being the closest player to McCoy when he reached the end zone. Delmas dove for him after the mistake and missed, and Rashean Mathis couldn’t catch up with him, either.

It was just part of what Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said were 180 yards after missed tackles Sunday. And part of what was a record-setting day from McCoy.

“The guys up front gave me opportunities one-on-one by blowing those guys off the ball,” McCoy said about his running game in general. “I think everybody was so intimidated and scared up front, but I thought the big guys on my team took the challenge and stepped up.

“The whole week they talked about just running the ball and giving me different matchups one-on-one. Not only myself, but with the backs that we have, I think in one-on-one opportunities, we’re going to win. (Sunday), that’s what happened.”
This could get very interesting.

Philadelphia has the fastest offense in the NFL, a group that prefers to run if it can but will pass when it must. Detroit has one of the most aggressive defensive lines in football, a run defense that has been impossible to penetrate over the past two months of the season, and an offense that can keep pace with the Eagles.

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Plus, these are two teams fighting for berths in the playoffs. For Philadelphia, a win would at the very least allow the Eagles to keep pace with Dallas in the NFC East race, if not move into first place entirely. For Detroit, a win puts the Lions closer to its first-ever NFC North title.

So how do the Lions move closer? Here are four keys.

Work the right side of the line: The right side of Philadelphia’s offensive line has struggled in pass protection. The Eagles’ center, Jason Kelce, is a little bit undersized. This bodes well for Detroit’s front four, specifically defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. The entirety of the defensive line is coming off its best game of the season against Green Bay, remains fairly healthy, and has a mission of showing it can be more consistent over the final month of the season, an issue over the first three months of the season.

If Philadelphia focuses too much on Fairley and Suh, it will leave potential rush lanes for Ziggy Ansah, Willie Young and Devin Taylor, who have all shown glimpses of strong production throughout the season.

Get the ball to Calvin Johnson: This is obviously part of Detroit’s strategy on a weekly basis, but Philadelphia gives up more passing yards per game than any other team in the league. The Eagles' secondary has struggled against receivers this season -- Michael Floyd had five receptions for 99 yards and Larry Fitzgerald had five catches for 72 yards last Sunday -- and Johnson is the best in the game. Consider this: The team with the second-worst pass defense in the league is Dallas, and Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards against the Cowboys -- the second-best receiving game in NFL history. Also, 72 percent of the yards the Eagles have allowed this season have been passing yards.

Reach the 10-yard line: The Lions are the best team in the league in converting goal-to-go scenarios, scoring touchdowns on 83.3 percent of those trips. It also helps that perhaps more than any other team, Detroit is built to score close to the end zone. They have two massive red-zone targets in Johnson and tight end Joseph Fauria, along with both a downhill back in Joique Bell and a make-you-miss back in Reggie Bush. Being able to convert more often than not in those scenarios are what good teams are able to do.

Don’t stress inside the red zone: The Lions have been quite good inside the red zone this season -- ranked third in the NFL in red-zone defense with a 38.7 percent conversion rate. Meanwhile, Philadelphia, for all its speed and quickness and having LeSean McCoy in its backfield, is only 29th in red-zone efficiency offense, converting 46.2 percent of the its opportunities. That’s a good place for the Lions to be successful.
Fairley/FolesGetty ImagesNick Fairley and the Lions' defense will have their hands full slowing down Eagles QB Nick Foles.
The Philadelphia Eagles have exceeded expectations so far in coach Chip Kelly's first season. The Detroit Lions have arguably fallen a little short of expectations in coach Jim Schwartz's fifth season.

When the two 7-5 teams meet in Philadelphia, it won't matter how they got there. The Eagles and Lions are both in position to win their division titles, and a win Sunday will be a major step toward achieving that goal.

The game will feature two potent but very different offenses. Nick Foles may not be the bona fide franchise quarterback that Matthew Stafford is, but he is the hottest quarterback in the league over the past five weeks. The Eagles' defense may lack stars like Ndamukong Suh, but it is playing better every week as a group. Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush will provide its toughest test since the Denver disaster back in September.

ESPN.com reporters Michael Rothstein, who covers the Lions, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, took a look at some key issues in a game with major playoff implications.

Sheridan: The NFC North race has been deeply affected by quarterback injuries, with Chicago's Jay Cutler and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers out of the picture lately. Despite a healthy and productive Stafford, the Lions haven't been able to separate from the rest. What are some key reasons for that?

Rothstein: It starts with turnovers and inconsistency. The Lions' defensive line, the same group that dominated on Thanksgiving, largely disappeared in some earlier games. Turnovers are a major issue, too. The Lions have three or more turnovers in four of their past five games. Against Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, that was a key factor in those losses. Detroit is a very talented team that continues to feel like a group still finding out exactly how it wants to play. But it does start with those turnovers. A couple of the Lions' players even told me after Thursday's game -- by far the Lions' best performance this season -- that turnovers were still a major issue. And Detroit committed four of them and still scored 40 points. If they do that Sunday, the Lions will be leaving with a loss.

Speaking of turnovers, Foles appears allergic to mistakes, especially turnovers, this season. Is it all fitting in with Chip Kelly's system? Maturation? Magic? Something different? What has turned him into this quarterback this season?

Sheridan: There is almost certainly an element of magic involved. By that I mean that Foles has had a bit of luck on his side. He threw two would-be interceptions to Patrick Peterson Sunday, for instance. DeSean Jackson batted one away and a penalty negated the other. But there is no doubt that Foles has played extremely well and with remarkable poise and confidence. He has fully embraced and absorbed Kelly's offense, which includes sound pass protection and a great running game -- two of every quarterback's best friends. Foles has been accurate and unafraid to trust his receivers to make plays on the ball. If you make good decisions and sharp throws in a well-designed offense, it turns out pretty much like what we've seen from Foles the past two months.

The Eagles felt pretty good about running their offense effectively against good Tampa Bay and Arizona defenses. The Lions seem like a new challenge with that front of theirs. Was the Thanksgiving game a sign the Lions have gotten it going on defense or are they just as likely to disappear in the face of Kelly's uptempo, unorthodox offense?

Rothstein: It's tough to say because the Lions haven't really seen this type of offense before, although I'm guessing the three younger guys on the line -- tackle Nick Fairley and ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor -- are somewhat familiar from their recent college days. Getting pressure with the front four -- and, at least last week, well-timed blitzes from linebackers and safeties -- is still going to be the key for any Detroit defensive success. And doing it for one week doesn't make it a guarantee that it'll continue. Even though he doesn't have huge stats, Suh has been a consistent force up front and if he and Fairley can get going early, it opens things up for Ansah on the outside.

The pressure key, though, is more important for Detroit's cornerbacks. The Lions have been very inconsistent there this season, but they were able to take the first read away from Green Bay's Matt Flynn a lot. By doing that, it gave the defensive line an extra second to get to Flynn so it all worked together. But it has been a matter of consistency, which the Lions have not had there this season.

Since we were talking about the Detroit defensive line, the Lions have been extremely good against the run. They haven't allowed a rushing touchdown in two months and have gone six straight games holding teams under 70 yards rushing total. Some of this is the proliferation of passing in the NFL, but considering LeSean McCoy's numbers this season, how much do the Eagles try running before sticking with Foles and his arm?

Sheridan: One of the most striking differences between Kelly and Andy Reid, a guy I covered for 14 years and respect a lot, is that Kelly is very committed to the run. He sticks with it almost no matter what, with the belief that it will eventually wear a defense down. Reid would abandon the run game after two or three unsuccessful plays. Early in the season, McCoy was on pace to break the NFL record for rushing attempts in a season. He is now on pace for 100 fewer carries than that, about 310. That's because Foles' success in the passing game has allowed Kelly to be more balanced. A few teams -- the Giants and Cowboys, especially -- were able to shut the Eagles' running game down. Arizona did a good job of it in the second half. But Kelly hasn't completely abandoned it in any of those games. If that changes Sunday, it will mean he really thinks the Lions' defense is invulnerable to it.

The Eagles were moderately successful keeping Larry Fitzgerald from going off last week. Johnson is another matter. Has anyone been really effective in stopping Megatron and, if so, how did they go about it? Does it take an elite corner or an elite scheme? A drone strike?

Rothstein: The team that has been most successful in limiting Johnson this season has been ... the Detroit Lions. There have been times during games this season when the Lions have seemed to go away from the best receiver in football, most notably in the second half against Pittsburgh, when he had no catches. Darrelle Revis has been pretty good on Johnson as well, but for the most part, it takes a really good scheme to keep the ball out of his hands. Unless you have a corner like Revis, usually some sort of bracketing of Johnson can be effective. But the Lions are OK with that happening because it opens up the field for Bush and Nate Burleson. That was a big reason the Lions got Bush -- just for that.

This kind of leads into my last question. Philadelphia's pass defense has been both poor and porous this season. Do they have any sort of manpower to match up with Johnson -- and to a lesser extent Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Kris Durham and Bush -- or could this be another game like he had against the Cowboys or Bengals?

Sheridan: Before getting to the answer (spoiler alert: It's no, the Eagles can't match up with Johnson), let me clarify a bit. It's true that the numbers show the Eagles to be terrible as far as yards allowed. They really have given up vast chunks of yardage. But they are keeping teams out of the end zone, and that is giving the offense breathing room to function.

While insisting the Eagles' defense is better than its stats, I have to say this matchup could be the one that breaks some of those trends. Stafford is better than Carson Palmer and Johnson is better than anyone, so this may be the week the yards translate into more points. The Eagles' strength right now is their front seven, and if they can get pressure on Stafford and force him into some of the mistakes he is prone to making, that will go a long way toward covering up the mismatches on the back end.

Ezekiel AnsahTim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDetroit's defensive line stuck to its team approach Thursday, getting after Green Bay QB Matt Flynn.
DETROIT -- In some ways, the Detroit Lions' defensive line was sleeping most of the season. It had been inconsistent. It was a group in the middle of the NFL in sacks, a group long on talent and short on statistics.

They would see stacked protections -- to the point that defensive end Willie Young would joke with opponents they were on the wrong side just to try to find an opening. They would pressure the quarterback but never actually reach him.

Then Green Bay offensive lineman Josh Sitton spoke. Called the Detroit defensive linemen dirtbags. Scumbags. Insulted Lions coach Jim Schwartz. It might have been all the poking Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley needed.

"It's waking up sleeping dogs," cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "But that's how he felt. He expressed it.

"We responded."

By the time the Lions' 40-10 thrashing of the Packers ended, the Lions' once-hibernating defensive front was wide awake. And there could be another easy word to describe them.

Dominant. Utterly and completely dominant.

"It's just the performance we always believe we can have," defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said.

When the Detroit defensive line plays like it did Thursday -- with 16 tackles, seven quarterback hits, five sacks, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and a safety -- the Lions can be one of the top teams in the NFL.

The pressure Detroit's front four can place on an opposing quarterback -- and it appeared the Lions blitzed linebackers and safeties Thursday more often than they usually do -- changes the entire game.

When Detroit can combine that with taking away a quarterback's first read, which the Lions did to Matt Flynn, it'll give the Lions enough time to reach the passer.

This was, by far, the best the Lions defense played this season and, by far, the best the Lions have played overall. The way the defense played eliminated pressure on Matthew Stafford and the offense because they knew they might get extra opportunities and wouldn't have to score on every possession to win.

It begins with the defensive line, a group that insisted it approached things the same way every week, always rushing the quarterback, but due to quick-twitch passers or protections featuring linemen, tight ends and running backs, it was unable to actually sack the quarterback.

"Every game, we go out and do the same thing over and over," rookie defensive end Devin Taylor said. "Every time, something happens. We get closer and closer.

"Finally, today, we were actually able to get back to the quarterback."

It all started before the game. Instead of coming out individually during introductions, the defensive line -- and safety and the soul of the defense, Louis Delmas -- ignored that. When Young was announced, the entirety of the line came out.

Together.

After the game, the Lions' defensive linemen said it had nothing to do with being called scumbags and dirtbags by Sitton. It was an idea, Suh said, that came from Andre Fluellen to show solidarity.

How they played backed that up. With perhaps a little bit extra because of Sitton.

"Unreal," center Dominic Raiola said. "They looked unblockable today. Seriously."

They pretty much were. It wasn't just the line, either. The defense held Green Bay to 24 rushing yards and sacked Flynn almost as often as he completed passes (seven sacks, 10 completions).

Ndamukong Suh reached the end zone for a safety. That's more than the Packers' offense did all day long.

"It's embarrassing," Sitton said. "We got our a-- beat. Plain and simple. They smacked us today."

Of course, Sitton influenced that. While Detroit's defensive line -- those guys Sitton thought were scumbags and dirtbags a couple of days ago -- tried to downplay what he said, the line played differently Sunday.

The linemen played as if they were trying to prove something. To themselves. To Sitton. To the rest of the NFL.

From the veterans such as Young, who had five tackles and a fumble recovery, and Suh, who had the safety sack, to the rookies such as Taylor and Ziggy Ansah, who each had three tackles and two sacks, the entire group appeared both present and almost possessed by a singular goal of flattening Flynn.

"I know it motivated some guys, especially the D-line," offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle said. "I feel like it did motivate them.

"[Green Bay] kind of hurt themselves by saying that, I feel like. Just because it was another thing to add into the pot of extra motivation for those guys."

It was something already percolating, too. Detroit had heard a lot about the dirtiness of its defensive line over the past month, from Chicago's Brandon Marshall to Sitton. Combine that with a two-game losing streak to teams with losing records. And giving up two leads in the fourth quarter the past two weeks.

Motivation wasn't going to be an issue. Add Sitton's words and it turned combustible.

It blew up on Sitton. The Packers are now under .500 and well behind Detroit in the NFC North race.

It blew up for Detroit. The Lions once again gained tenuous control of the division, with a 1½-game lead on Chicago because of the tiebreaker they have over the Bears.

It all started with the defensive line, a group that can now be called whatever they want.

"It was, you can say it was a dominating performance. It's just something we've got to string together, man," Mosley said. "I think that'll kind of take us to the next level where we want to be as far as the postseason.

"We've got to string performances like this together."

If they do, the Detroit Lions, up one week, down the next, might just end up making the playoffs after all.



When Ndamukong Suh has been asked in the past about his fines and his play, he’ll sometimes respond by saying some equivalent of that’s your opinion.

Sitton
Well, Green Bay guard Josh Sitton -- someone who Suh has said in the past he has enjoyed facing -- offered his on Tuesday and predictably it was about as pleasant as a harsh Michigan winter.

Sitton called the Lions defense “dirtbags” and “scumbags” and Detroit’s head coach, Jim Schwartz, a slang word for male genitalia. So, you know, clearly Sitton’s got an opinion.

It just happens to be a strong one. And that’s fine and it is something the Lions have heard before -- well, at least about their defense. Not sure if anyone has ever called Schwartz a “d---” publicly before.

But the Lions, having lost two games in a row, have bigger issues than Sitton’s words right now.

A lot of what Sitton said about the Lions defense -- not Schwartz -- is similar to what other players and coaches have said over the years. There’s a reason Suh has been voted the dirtiest player in the NFL and why the Lions are often looked at when fines come down from the league for late hits and roughing the passer calls.

Some of that, in the past, has had to do with immaturity. Most of the Detroit defensive line -- and let’s be real here, most of this has to do with Suh, Nick Fairley and Willie Young as Ziggy Ansah, Devin Taylor, C.J. Mosley and Israel Idonije have been around less than a year -- have been young players still learning in the league.

Except the problem that it is only so believable when you look at facts. Among penalties that are usually plays that might be fined, no Lions player is in the top 10 according to ESPN Stats & Information. Both Fairley and Suh each have three such penalties (generally, horse collar tackles, low hits, roughing the passer, late hits, etc...), but they don’t lead the league.

As a team, among the 20 penalties I flagged in the ESPN Stats & Information database as ones that could draw fines, the Lions are second, defensively, with 15 behind Tampa Bay with 21.

But the flags don’t necessarily correspond with the feelings of the reality of what is being called against the Lions. Penalties don’t mean everything. Suh was fined for a play that went unflagged against Cleveland this season and refs surely miss some things.

But this, again, is a case of reputation and semi-reality converging into a nice, neat package for a player to rip. Suh, Fairley and friends play aggressively. And it is something they are coached to do, something Young confirmed as much to me earlier this season.

So the chances of these opinions ever changing is minimal. It’s just something Detroit needs to deal with and brush off. The Lions season is teetering right now, so they should have bigger things to fix than what an opposing lineman is calling them.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Willie Young settles in at the line of scrimmage, waiting for the snap for yet another play. He’ll look at the opposing offensive line, the tight ends, the running backs, everything stacked against the Detroit Lions' front four and starts a conversation.

It’s how he keeps himself calm when he sees what he and the rest of the Detroit Lions defensive line will have to get through just to even get a shot at an opposing quarterback.

Double teams. Running backs chipping. Tight ends staying in to block. Detroit doesn’t bring much pressure at all outside of its front four, but opponents have to keep almost all of their players in to try and keep those four guys from finding their quarterback.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
AP Photo/David DurochikNdamukong Suh, center, and the Detroit Lions' defensive linemen can always count on facing a lot of traffic on their way to the quarterback.
“To some extent, it’s funny. You can’t just blow your top and get all frustrated with it, because once that happens, now you’ve really got a problem,” Young said. “It’s like, ‘Come on, man. Come on, man. Give me a break over here, man.’

“I’ll be talking to them all the time, like, ‘You know you don’t belong over here. You’re on the wrong side of the formation, you’re supposed to be over there.’ I mess with them, but that’s just the mindset that I take of working the game.”

It's one of the ways Detroit processes what is happening to its defensive line this season. The Lions' front four, statistically, has been inconsistent in part because of the mass of humanity opponents use to slow them each week.

Ndamukong Suh? He sees double teams on nearly every play. Nick Fairley? He faces double teams a good amount, too. Ends Ziggy Ansah and Young? They deal with a tackle and a running back or a tackle and a tight end. Or maybe two tight ends.

“It makes me sick sometimes, but it is what it is,” defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “We see those same teams play against other teams that I think are good pass-rush teams, and the receivers come out and they end up in five or six-man protection schemes, and that’s easier to break, but when you have all your guys doubled up front, it’s pretty hard.”

In 10 games, the Lions' defensive line has 14 sacks, right around the middle of the NFL for defensive line sack production. The difference is, Detroit blitzes less than any team in the league -- 16.9 percent of an opposing quarterback’s dropbacks. The Lions are one of three teams in the NFL blitzing on fewer than 20 percent of the plays.

So the amount of pressure on Detroit’s front four to actually reach the quarterback on a consistent basis is higher than any team in the league. If the Lions can’t get there, the defensive backs will likely have issues, since they can only cover for so long before a receiver will eventually break free.

Most of the inconsistency goes to teams changing protections. The Lions recognize it in-game and try to switch, but four-on-seven or four-on-eight will only lead to so much success.

Not that Lions don’t keep trying.

“I know one thing,” Fairley said. “We probably will be up-and-down some games, but we’re steady coming. We keep it going. We don’t just be like, ‘Dang, we not getting there, we didn’t get sacks this game.’

“We come back, watch film from this game, and just correct our mistakes and see how can we make it better the next go-round.”

The defensive line’s season-long inconsistency was extremely evident last Sunday against Pittsburgh. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked more often than any other quarterback this season entering the game.

The Lions only sacked Roethlisberger once -- from Fairley.

Pittsburgh did something most teams have been unable to do. Roethlisberger, who joked before the game he’d have to be more careful facing Fairley and Suh or he might end up dead, got rid of the ball faster than any other quarterback against Detroit this season.

Besides added protection, that’s how teams counter Detroit’s four-man pass rush. If a quarterback can make a read and throw in around two seconds, Suh, Fairley and the ends have little time to make any plays.

All of this could lead to frustration for Detroit. But that is part of what defensive line coaches Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek have to stress to the Lions’ defensive linemen each week.

Stay patient. Stay focused. Keep rushing. Understand you’re going to see double teams all the time.

“If you’re a defensive tackle growing up and you play in this league, you’re going to have something like 700 pounds on you every play,” Cunningham said. “You’re going to get doubled. However you handle those players, you have to be really good. Anything you pay a defensive line coach, he’s worth it if he can do that. To me.

“Motivating those guys, sticking with them, making them understand is the most difficult job they have. It’s just a nightmare, it really is.”

The question is, who is the nightmare for. Right now, it’s the Lions, who are seeing more guys blocking them than ever before. But they understand the reason. Opponents are just doing it to keep their own quarterbacks from having their own nightmares.

Or worse. Having their actual quarterback being pummeled in a game.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Almost two weeks ago, after being called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Chicago quarterback Josh McCown, Willie Young voiced his displeasure with the current rules on where you could hit players.

Young
Young
Fairley
Mostly, that something needed to change, because in the high speed world of the NFL, calls protecting quarterbacks and offensive players were starting to become an issue for where defensive players were able to hit.

At the time, Young said the players should meet after the season to discuss the issue. When Young was asked this week about the Ahmad Brooks' hit on Drew Brees, which led to the NFL Nation Says question of whether quarterbacks are being too protected by the league, Young was still passionate in his defense of the defense.

Brooks’ hit, which he was fined for, was unintentional and happened during a regular play. For instance, on Young’s play where he was fined, he said he was going for the ball as McCown released it.

“Every defensive player feels the same way when they see another defensive player get fined on something like that, in that case or scenario,” Young said. “Every defensive lineman feels the same way, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You know what I’m saying, you’ve got to be for real.”

Young, who was fined for the hit on McCown, is still hoping the players are able to meet in the offseason to discuss the rules and what can change, but he said that it has changed a lot in the game.

And it isn’t just with quarterbacks. Young said with the way Detroit’s front four aggressively goes after the quarterback, it makes the rules somewhat difficult, and that when you hit a quarterback when you're trying to make a correct tackle, if a guy moves, it could become an issue.

“It’s all the kind of ways you can and can’t approach guys now,” Young said. “It just makes it so awkward.”

He isn’t the only Lions player who has noticed this.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was also fined against the Bears, said the Detroit defensive linemen were discussing these topics recently. His opinion? The rules are making them play smarter.

“We were just like, 'they just making us play fundamental football,'” Fairley said. “We can’t just be out there all wild and everywhere. They are really making you just play fundamental football.”

The problem comes in games, when everything is going fast and the main goal is to reach the quarterback or running back and disrupt the play. Then, he said, is when problems occur.

“That’s when the fines come out,” Fairley said. “Sometimes you’ll be in the heat of the game, heat of the moment and you go out and make a boneheaded play, but that’s the part of being a professional.

“You’ve got to exit those plays out of the game.”

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