NFC North: Nick Fairley


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.

Suh
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
7:43
PM ET
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.

Fairley
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
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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.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Pittsburgh may not appear to be the typical Steelers team this season, under .500 and barely hanging on in the AFC North divisional race, but don’t tell Detroit that.

The Lions are convinced the Steelers are a good team that has played a lot of close games -- and they aren’t underestimating the Pittsburgh defense, which is still one of the top units against the pass in the league.

“I don’t know that you’ll ever have a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that’s underrated,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “They have played some really good games this year.

“We’re going to have our hands full. They have players.”

So how does Detroit beat Pittsburgh? Here are four keys.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsLions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will have his sights set on rattling Steelers quarterback Ben Rothelisberger's cage on Sunday.
Pressure Ben Roethlisberger: The Lions reasserted themselves as a front four last week against Chicago with defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh each reaching the Bears' quarterbacks four times. Now they face a quarterback known for staying with a play and in the pocket until the last possible second in Roethlisberger -- as well as the quarterback who has been sacked more than any other in the past five seasons.

So the more pressure Detroit is able to get on Roethlisberger, the better its chances are of forcing him into a mistake or bringing him down a few times, crushing Steelers drives.

Embrace the favorite role: It is a new place for the Lions, perennially looked at as a potential spoiler for playoff teams by this time of the season instead of a team trying to reach a divisional title. But this is where the Lions are now and this will be the first time they will be on the road in that type of role. While Detroit’s players have said they don’t look at themselves in that favorite type of role, that is what they are now. A game like this against Pittsburgh is one they potentially should win and, if they are going to elevate from playoff contender to a team that could make a run in the playoffs in January, one they should be able to win. It’d be a big confidence boost in that regard.

Don’t be rattled by a Matthew Stafford interception: Here’s a fun stat. In Detroit’s six wins this season, Stafford has thrown an interception in each game. In its three losses, he has been interception-free. So while I’m not advocating for Stafford, who is having the best season of his career, to throw an interception, I’m saying it isn’t the end of the game if he does. Stafford has been accurate this season and has compiled a really strong year. There’s a pretty good chance he becomes Detroit’s all-time passing leader Sunday as well. So stick with him and don’t get fazed if he turns the ball over.

Keep Bell in check: Detroit has turned into one of the top rushing defenses in the league (ranked eighth at the moment allowing 100.67 yards a game) and have held their last three opponents under 100 yards rushing as a team. Le’Veon Bell is a local guy -- he played at Michigan State -- who has emerged as Pittsburgh’s top running option as a rookie.

Most of that responsibility falls on the defensive linemen and linebackers to make plays, particularly linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch.

“We’re still a work in progress there,” Schwartz said. “But if we can get the run stopped it goes a long way to getting us to where we want to go.”
Calvin Johnson and Troy PolamaluGetty ImagesCalvin Johnson's Lions look to continue their success against Troy Polamalu's struggling Steelers.


The respective histories of the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers suggest that the latter would be 6-3 and the former 3-6 heading into their game Sunday at Heinz Field.

But it is the Steelers who have scuffled this season, and they are still trying to dig out from an 0-4 start. The Lions, meanwhile, sit atop the NFC North and have the pieces to make a lengthy postseason run assuming they can keep up their winning ways.

The Steelers have little margin for error as they try to stay on the fringes of the AFC playoff picture, and the Lions will try to maintain their grip in first place in the NFC North when the teams meet at 1 p.m.

ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the first matchup between the two teams since 2009.

Brown: Michael, I'm not surprised that the Lions are playing so well this season, and my question for you is, what has the signing of running back Reggie Bush done for the offense?

Rothstein: It's been huge, Scott. Bush's signing in the offseason spreads defenses out and forces teams to make a choice. Either double Calvin Johnson or continuously roll safety coverage Johnson's way or bring a defender down into the box to stop Bush -- but that leaves things open for Matthew Stafford to find Johnson. He has the ability to take a dump-off play and turn it into a massive touchdown -- something he has done twice on screens this season. While he doesn't change the offense the way it would if Stafford or Johnson were missing, he's a massive cog there.

Speaking of that -- and I feel as if I've asked this question weekly -- how do you think Pittsburgh handles that matchup against the Detroit offense?

Brown: Michael, it's hard to like the matchup if you are the Steelers. Speed in their secondary has been an issue this season, particularly at safety, and I'm not sure anyone can run with Bush if the Lions isolate him on linebacker or safety as a receiver.

The Steelers are going to have to pay Johnson the extra attention he demands, and last I checked they will only be allowed to have 11 defensive players on the field. Assuming the Steelers use a combination of double and bracket coverage on Johnson, there are going to be some one-on-one matchups that the Lions may be able to exploit.

The Steelers haven't generated a consistent pass rush this season, but it will be absolutely essential that they do so against Stafford. If he is allowed to get comfortable in the pocket Sunday it will be a long day for the Steelers.

The best thing the Steelers can do for their defense is to control the clock, but it won't be easy to run on Detroit's front seven. Does it start on the Lions' defense with tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and how have other teams tried to neutralize those two?

Rothstein: Yes, most of what Detroit does defensively starts with Suh, and to a lesser extent, Fairley. Suh is having one of the most consistent seasons of his career, this despite the constant presence on double teams each week. The attention Suh is given opens rush lanes for Fairley, but he hasn't been completely consistent taking advantage of them.

For every game he has like Sunday's against Chicago, he has a game where he disappears. But the pressure Suh, Fairley and the defensive line put on quarterbacks has led to incomplete passes and interceptions often.

If there is a concern with the Detroit defense, it is with its cornerbacks, who have been inconsistent. Can Ben Roethlisberger take advantage of this with his current crop of receivers?

Brown: Antonio Brown has really emerged as a No. 1 receiver and made the Steelers look smart for not overpaying for Mike Wallace. That said, Emmanuel Sanders has not been consistent enough to give the Steelers a receiving option to pair with Brown.

Sanders has a ton of talent, and he is a big-play threat. I keep waiting for him to break out. This could be the week for him to do it as the Steelers are going to have to score their share of points to keep up with the Lions. Lost in the Steelers' 55-31 loss at New England a couple of weeks ago is how much success the Steelers had attacking the Patriots' cornerbacks.

If the Lions' cornerbacks are vulnerable, the Steelers will go after them, and Detroit has to be mindful of the middle of the field where tight end Heath Miller and Jerricho Cotchery work and are trusted by Roethlisberger.

Michael, I don't see the Steelers winning this game unless they score a lot of points. What needs to happen for the Lions to lose?

Rothstein: That's an interesting question, Scott, and with the Lions you just never know. I'd probably start with if any of the Lions' starters in the secondary went down with injury. That would necessitate playing either an inexperienced safety or rookie Darius Slay if one of the corners goes down. Roethlisberger is good enough that he'd pick on that side of the field consistently.

Another would be to force turnovers. Stafford has been quite good this season, essentially throwing less than two interceptions per 100 attempts (he has a 1.9 percent rate), which is in the top 10 of the league and tied with Drew Brees. If Detroit's offense can hold on to the ball and everyone is healthy, it'll score points.

I'll close out with this: You mentioned Pittsburgh trying to establish the run first. What's been going on there? It seems as if there has been a rotating cast of players because of injuries and other issues. Do the Steelers even have a reliable running attack?

Brown: Depends on the week, it seems, when it comes to the Steelers' running game. It has gotten a lot better since Le'Veon Bell became the feature back, and the Steelers have rushed for over 100 yards in their last two games.

To put into perspective how important it is for the Steelers to establish the ground game, they have run the ball just over 51 percent of the time in their three wins and around 30 percent of their time in six losses.

The Steelers have to run the ball against the Lions, and a big component of that is not falling behind early, something that has been a problem this season.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Ndamukong Suh had a busy night Tuesday. He briefly met Magic Johnson. Then he got a chance to watch Kentucky play Michigan State in Chicago as part of the Champions Classic.

Suh, who has always been an avid lover of basketball and said he was recruited by low-level schools out of high school, was impressed with what he saw from one particular player Tuesday night.

Kentucky freshman Julius Randle.

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“He’s got some talent. I like that kid,” Suh said. “He reminds me of me in my younger days other than I’m not a left-hander. If I was 6-foot-7, I don’t know if I’d be playing football right now.

“But he has some great talent and he’s got a great coach, Coach Cal [John Calipari]. I didn’t get to see too much of [Andrew] Wiggins or Jabari Parker because I left. Had to come back to work.”

Yes, Suh had football practice for the Lions on Wednesday, but he did spend some time after practice reminiscing about his own game and said one day, if he were have ownership in a sports franchise, it would potentially be a basketball team.

Suh played throughout high school but stopped because of football in college. Now, he says he won’t play competitive games to protect his knees.

“My game? If I’m going to pick an NBA player that I kind of patterned after, I’d say Charles [Barkley] and a little bit of Karl [Malone],” Suh said. “But I’ve always, even the way I look at football, I’ve always kind of a combination of people.

“But I love basketball. That’s one of my first loves outside of soccer.”

He isn’t the only Detroit defensive lineman who can ball.

Nick Fairley, who compared his game to Shawn Kemp’s, played basketball at Williamson High in Alabama and said he’ll still play basketball, but only pickup games. And that he has “handles for a big man.”

That could include a potential game with Suh as Fairley said the two have talked about it since Fairley joined the Lions last season.

Oh, and he offered a joking hoops challenge to his teammates when asked if he could beat Suh.

“Of course,” Fairley said. “Anybody in this locker room. Whoever want it? Come get it.”
It was not Detroit’s prettiest game on offense or defense Sunday, but the Lions are in first place in the NFC North after Week 10 following a 21-19 win over the Bears.

Not surprisingly, the Detroit defensive line and wide receiver Calvin Johnson were two of the main focal points of this week’s behind the numbers, taking a peek at some of the biggest reasons the Lions beat Chicago.

Some numbers in this post were culled from ESPN Stats & Information. Follow Stats & Information on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo

3 -- Road wins this season for Detroit -- only the third time the Lions have done that in the past decade.

11 -- Quarterback hits on Chicago’s quarterbacks Sunday, all by the Lions defensive linemen.

4 -- Hits each by defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh.

1 -- Target for receiver Kris Durham, his fewest targets this season. It did, however, result in a Lions touchdown.

17 -- Targets for Calvin Johnson according to the official game book on Sunday -- his most of the season.

63 -- Receiving touchdowns for Johnson, most in Detroit history.

567 -- Receiving yards for Johnson the past three games, third most in a three-game stretch in NFL history behind Charley Hennigan (612 yards for the Oilers in 1961) and Chad Johnson (573 for the Bengals in 2006).

8,740 -- Career yards in his first 100 games -- second-most in NFL history behind Lance Alworth (9,019).

47 -- Percentage of Lions’ receiving touchdowns Johnson has this season -- tied for third in the league with Chicago’s Brandon Marshall behind San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and Oakland’s Denarius Moore.

5 -- Interceptions this season for linebacker DeAndre Levy, tied for the NFL lead.

10 -- Lions who played every offensive or defensive snap Sunday (Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims, Riley Reiff, Larry Warford and Matthew Stafford on offense and Stephen Tulloch, Glover Quin, Louis Delmas, Rashean Mathis and Levy on defense).

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