Why Lions have inconsistent pass rush

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
6:00
PM ET
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.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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