Monday, September 7, 2009

Lions Season Preview 2009, Part 5: The Defensive Line


While the Lions defense has seemingly always been a struggling mass of overmatched shellshock victims and mutilated corpses, the defensive line has always been remarkably solid, usually boasting one or two playmakers capable of holding the Lions in the game even while the back end of the defense ran for their lives, on fire and sobbing while opposing ball carriers shit down their throats. Okay, that may have been a little much. Anyway, the line has been a remarkably solid fixture in Detroit going back to the days when Jerry Ball would clog up the middle and then eat a whole turkey on Thanksgiving.

For about a decade, from the mid-80's to the mid-90's, the Lions ran a 3-4 defense, usually anchored by Ball in the middle and flanked by ends who could take up adequate space and allow the linebackers to flow to the ball. When Ball left town, the Lions stuck to the 3-4 for a couple of seasons and then switched to the 4-3, just in time for Robert Porcher to step to the forefront as the team's preeminent lineman.

Porcher, along with Luther Ellis on the interior of the line, gave the Lions a presence that was often, uh, lacking in the other areas of the defense. And when Ellis' time in Detroit was up, they were able to plug in blue chip superbeast Shaun Rogers, who was - and still remains - one of the most talented defensive tackles in the league. And while Rogers managed to hold down the fort at defensive tackle, sadly when Porcher left, the Lions were unable to replace his pass rush ability and the Lions defense weakened even further.

And then Rod Marinelli made his play. Coming off of a 7-9 season in which the Lions actually showed a modicum of respectability(although it can be argued, and I most certainly have, that this was a result of a freewheeling offensive attack engineered by Mike Martz and not the defense. I know people don't like Martz and while I agree that we were never going to become elite with the inherent flaws in his system, for a bad team like the Lions, his system gave us the only opportunity to be competitive by focusing on the one thing we could do well - throw the ball. Unfortunately, a side effect of this assault on the halls of respectability was the perception that Rod Marinelli was making progress as a head coach, when in fact, the areas of the team which he treasured - defense, line play, etc. - really were no better than they had been in the many horrific seasons before. Anyway, I digress and I just realized that I have been writing all of this digression within the walls of parentheses, and I have no idea how I am going to get back into the flow of the sentence which I interrupted many, many moons ago. Help.), Marinelli(good Lord this sentence is the most awkward sentence since Abraham Lincoln invented writing - and no I'm not changing it because I am almost impressed by its stunning incompetence - to hell with grammatical rules, we are running WILD)used his newfound cache born off of the back of that 7-9 season to impose his will further on the team, and the biggest casualty on the killing floor was big Shaun Rogers, whose make a few plays and then rest for a while work ethic clashed completely with Marinelli's hard assed approach. Unfortunately, there was no one there to fill the gigantic space, both literally and metaphorically, left by Rogers, and yet again, we were treated to one of the catastrophic causes of 0-16.

Within the first game of last season, we knew that the line was doomed to abject failure. Michael Turner absolutely destroyed the Lions on the ground and the pass rush failed miserably against Matt Ryan and the Falcons. It was a stark and obvious signpost on that long and miserable road to 0-16, and if we were all smarter, we would have run for the hills then and began hording supplies for the upcoming apocalypse. To my own credit, I saw this happening much earlier than a lot of people did, and in the preseason I railed against Marinelli and the Lions for their destruction of the defensive line in favor of misguided principles. It was one of those times that I really, really wish I hadn't been right, and as the rest of the season played out in much the same way as week one, with teams running wild over the Lions rush defense and quarterbacks raining death from above thanks to a substandard pass rush, it became clear that the Lions were in drastic need of an overhaul on the line. Have they gotten it? Well, let's find out.


The ends are the strength of this line. Which is not to say that they are particularly good. It's just that the rest of the line might be that bad. Dewayne White returns as the starter at right end. He's one of the few players Marinelli imported from Tampa Bay who didn't flame out once he got here. A smallish end, White is capable of getting to the quarterback and holds up pretty well against the run. He's a solid player, and I noted last year that the Lions were an obviously better team with him in the lineup. Unfortunately, White has had a problem staying healthy, and when he has been out, the team has been beaten like a gong. I like White, and I think that he's a solid starter who we don't have to worry about. One concern is that the new regime apparently likes bigger defensive ends, which White most definitely is not. It will be interesting to see how he fits in with the team's plans.

On the left end is Jason Hunter, and here's where things start to fall apart already. Hunter comes over from Green Bay where he was never anything more than a part time player, a backup who didn't see much time. Unfortunately, the Lions were unable to bring in somebody like Kevin Carter who they were pursuing during the offseason to shore up this spot. I'm not entirely sure what Hunter will even bring to the table, but it speaks to the scary lack of depth and talent here that he is the starter seemingly by default heading into the season.

And then we have the middle of the line. Excuse me while I drink this gallon of bleach, set myself on fire and then dive into oncoming traffic. Yeah. To say things are looking bleak in the middle would be to say that things were looking bleak for someone getting on a train at gunpoint in Warsaw circa 1943. I'm sorry, that is horrible and incredibly offensive. It is a testament to how awful this situation is here, and how terrible the Lions have been as a whole, that my mind keeps drifting towards holocaust references. I would apologize further, but, well, if you haven't been chased away by now, you kinda know how this nonsense tends to go. Still, Jesus, that was bad, even for me.

Anyway, the situation in the middle is D-I-R-E. Yes, that spells dire. Have a cookie. Speaking of cookies, Grady Jackson appears to be the starter at one of the tackle positions. A big fat man, Jackson can stand up to the run, but he'll tire out quickly and is not an every down player. Plus, it's still up in the air as to whether Jackson will even be able to play right away since he is currently appealing a 4 game suspension for failing a drug test. He's one of those dudes who got caught up in the whole Starcaps thing a while back, which is also the same thing that the league nailed the Williams Wall for. The whole thing is kind of a mess, and as of right now, the whole thing is up in the air, which only further complicates the mess the Lions have in the middle of the line.

It's funny, and by funny I mean incredibly sad and absurdly terrifying, that on Yahoo's page where they list the Lions depth chart, at the other defensive tackle spot next to Jackson they have listed . . . nobody. Seriously, it's just a blank space. I've never actually seen that. So, apparently, according to Yahoo we are just going to go without another defensive tackle this season. JESUS. That is how ridiculously bad things are in the middle of the line. This is not exactly cause for great optimism.

Fortunately, Landon Cohen, up until this season a fringe player, has been a bit of a revelation in camp and in the preseason. Cohen has always been too small to be an effective player at this level but he's put on quite a bit of weight, most of it apparently muscle, in the offseason and he looks like a totally different player. He's looked explosive and athletic, and maybe, just maybe, he can become the guy the Lions can build the middle of the line around. Then again, how often can you look at a dominating defense and it's crown jewel along the line is a seventh round draft pick? Cohen could end up pleasantly surprising everyone or he could end up being a camp wunderkind who never makes much of an impact when the lights go on. But because I am an optimist and a gentleman I will say that I believe that Cohen will indeed be an effective player this season for the Lions.

So those are your probable starters, although if Jackson is suspended, we are suddenly back to making Holocaust references and maybe even a tasteless crucifixion comment as well. Just a terrible thing and this is what this team has driven me to.

Obviously, there are not a lot of decent quality backups to be found along the line. The only one who really stands out as being a possible starter is Cliff Avril, a pure pass rusher who came on strong at the end of last season. He's stuck behind White right now on the right side, but he's a good enough player that he will probably see time similar to that of a starter. He is smallish though, even smaller than White, and it wouldn't surprise anybody if his future ended up as a sort of hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker whose primary responsibility is murdering the quarterback.

Andre Fluellen is a versatile option who seems to have the requisite talent to succeed at this level. Apparently, Bobby Bowden loved him at Florida St., and that's not exactly something to be taken lightly. Right now, it seems like the Lions have stuck him behind Hunter on the depth chart at defensive end even though Fluellen has been a defensive tackle by trade for the entirety of his career. He has more upside than Hunter and it wouldn't surprise me if he found himself in the starting lineup at some point.

Unfortunately, Fluellen's apparent move to end has further thinned the depth at defensive tackle, and you have to assume that there is some sort of move coming in the near future. For now though, behind Jackson and Cohen, and really perhaps even starting if Jackson is forced to sit out four games, is raw raw raw rookie Sammie Lee Hill. Have I mentioned that he is raw? RAW. I mean, this dude was playing a level barely above high school not that long ago, and really this isn't that much different than taking a five star prospect off of a high school team and plugging him into an NFL starting lineup. He has a ton of natural talent, but he has zero technique at this point, the result of being able to push around smaller players at will by sheer virtue of his size and natural talent - again, much like you would find in a dominant high school senior. He really shouldn't see the field at all this year, but the way things look right now, he might not only be a key contributor, he might even be forced to, gulp, start.

Now that Chuck Darby has been exiled, along with Ikaika Alama Francis and Shaun Smith, the Lions really have no one else ready to contribute. Orien Smith is still on the roster, but he is a fringe player at best who has bounced around the league and whose future probably resides on someone's practice squad. The lack of depth here is beyond shocking. Hang on. Okay, I just puked in a bucket a little bit. I'm back now. GOOD LORD. I have to quit talking about the defensive tackles because I can feel myself morphing into a werewolf as we speak and I don't want to end up smelling like wet fur and chicken's blood when I wake up in the morning.


Well . . . this is bad. The depth along the line is absurd, and not in the good way. They are dangerously close to having to pluck some random fat drunk dude out of the crowd in a jersey two sizes too small and plug him in at defensive tackle. The starters are barely adequate - hell, one of them doesn't even exist according to Yahoo's depth chart, and, well, I think Col. Kurtz is staring at me from the shadows. Where am I? What's going on?

GRADE: D-. This would be an F, but there is a hazy framework for the future of the line here - if everything breaks right anyway. Avril is a quality pass rusher, White is solid, Cohen might surprise and Hill should be the man in a couple of years. Unfortunately, it is 2009, not 2011, and I can hear the failure demon cackling.

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