Hello again, friends. We are BACK. I hope everyone used the bye week productively -- completing projects around the house, recovering from high-ankle sprains, that sort of thing.
I recently injured my rotator cuff playing in a coed flag football league, because that's the kind of athletic specimen I am. As a result, my physician has me on a prescription steroid. The newfound burst of chemically supplied energy, combined with an increasingly healthy 6-2 Detroit Lions team, has me feeling like Steve Lattimer going into the second half of the season. I am JUICED. Fortunately, POD does not test for PEDs, so Sean is continuing to let me write. Welcome to Week 10.
For all the players coming back healthy after the bye, the one exception is at defensive tackle, where mad genius Teryl Austin now has to figure out how to account for the absence of Nick Fairley. The fourth-year DT had been enjoying the best year of his career, combining with Ndamukong Suh to form arguably the most devastating interior pass rush in the league before going down with a knee injury against the Atlanta Falcons.
I'd like to say that extensive film review has revealed how Austin is going to replace Fairley's production on the defensive line, but that just isn't happening. But, with the Lions' edge rushers looking better seemingly every game, if Austin can get approximately 85 percent of Fairley's production out of that spot, the defense will remain incredibly formidable. It's going to take a lot of work from C.J. Mosley and Caraun Reid for that to happen.
It's been an interesting past couple of weeks for Mosley. After news of his suspension broke, there were plenty of jokes likening the situation to being sent home from a class field trip. It seems fitting that his offense turned out to be something a teenager would do. Mosley's average salary is a little shy of $1.4 million -- he is a man of substantial means. You'd think he would invest in smokeless technology, or at least employ some of the MacGyver tactics suggested by you fine folks in the comments.
Of course, this is the NFL, and things change quickly. Not many players return from a suspension to a promotion, but here we are. All things considered, I don't think the Lions' run defense suffers too much by slotting Mosley in Fairley's spot. If the erstwhile backup does one thing well, it's eat up blocks and locate the ball in traffic. Many of his stops in the run game this season have been of the Suh variety -- plays in which he drags a running back down with one arm despite being engaged with blockers.
You may not even be able to see Mosley in this screenshot. He's taking on a double team just above Tahir Whitehead, which is itself important, as it helps prevent Whitehead from having to engage with blockers. But Whitehead doesn't even have to make the play -- Mosley's arm emerges from the abyss and drags Fred Jackson down for a minimal gain.
Mosley is a stout run defender, but his work in the pass rush leaves something to be desired. At first glance, 2.5 sacks through seven games seems more than adequate for a rotational defensive tackle, but sack numbers are often misleading. Two of those sacks came in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. I detailed one of them a few weeks back, a play in which the Lions' defensive ends essentially drove Cam Newton into Mosley's arms. His other sack resulted from running untouched into the backfield after a horrendous missed assignment by the Panthers' offensive line.
Mosley has Fairley's power, but he doesn't have Fairley's quickness. Caraun Reid is the inverse. Reid had his baptism by fire against the Falcons, playing more than 50 percent of the Lions' defensive snaps after routinely clocking in at less than 10 percent for most of the season. Watching him on tape, you can see the reasons the Lions drafted him, and also the reasons he was a fifth-round pick.
One of Reid's best assets is his quick first step. A lot of his work comes as a 1- or 2-technique defensive tackle. Given that he's not the biggest guy in the world, Reid tends to lose the battle when interior linemen are able to square him up and get a clean block. But, when he shoots his gaps quickly enough, he's able to prevent that from happening. The play above is an example of that. (It is also one of the few instances of Reid and Mosley being on the field together.) Chris Johnson comes from right to left to take the handoff and hit outside the left guard. At the snap, Reid will come across the center's face to shoot the opposite A-gap.
Keep in mind that the center actually wants Reid to come this way, as it takes him farther away from the play's aiming point. Even with that, Reid gets backfield penetration quickly enough to alter the play. Johnson has to hesitate slightly after receiving the handoff, allowing Glover Quin to come in from the left and hit him at the line. Mosley essentially drives his blockers down the line of scrimmage and cleans it up.
When Reid is isolated one-on-one against interior linemen (something that tends to happen when you play next to Suh), he shows the ability to get interior pressure on the pass rush.
Reid is lined up in the same spot as the previous play, shooting the same gap, which leads to him matched up against the right guard. This is the type of matchup Reid and Mosley need to win for the Lions' interior pass rush to continue to be effective. (In what has become my favorite weekly tradition, Ziggy Ansah fakes a twist behind Suh before dropping into coverage.)
Fortunately, Reid is able to win his matchup. His first step gives him good penetration, and once the right guard engages with him, Reid is able to drive him back 5 yards, flushing Matt Ryan out of the pocket and toward Suh. Ryan tosses the ball to the sideline for an incomplete pass. Reid is able to do this because of his second greatest asset: his feet never stop moving. He may not beat a blocker clean, but once he's moving forward, he stays that way.
I honestly don't know if Reid and Mosley can win one-on-one matchups as frequently as Suh beats double or triple teams. That seems crazy to say, but it speaks as much to Suh's ability as it does the questions about the other two. Fortunately, there's an alternative to that, and it's something we've already seen a number of times this season.
In obvious passing situations, Austin has no qualms moving Jason Jones inside as a defensive tackle. Jones is one of the more unheralded members of the Lions' defensive line, but the guy shows up on tape, and he does it from everywhere on the line. He's probably the second-best pass-rushing defensive tackle the Lions will have on Sunday, so I wouldn't be surprised if we see more situations like this. The Falcons are facing a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter here, protecting a one-score lead. From left to right, the defensive linemen are George Johnson, Suh, Jones and Ansah.
At the snap, Suh shoots the A-gap between the center and right guard, with Whitehead blitzing behind him. Jones takes his initial step directly at left tackle Jake Matthews before cutting back inside to the A-gap opposite Suh. Matthews seems to hesitate for a split second and briefly loses his footing, allowing Ansah to fly around the edge for a drive-ending sack. The Lions fan in me wants to credit this entirely to Jones. The realist in me remembers how terrible the footing was at Wembley Stadium. But, whatever the reason, Austin calls an aggressive blitz with three defensive ends on the field, and it works to perfection.
A successful pass rush is a collective effort, and the Lions still have the players on the roster to make it happen. They managed to pitch a second-half shutout against Atlanta with Darryl Tapp getting meaningful snaps at defensive tackle, which defies logic. Thankfully, the Lions re-signed Andre Fluellen, which at the very least should prevent that from happening again.
Whoever fills in for Fairley will continue to see favorable looks because of the increased attention to Suh. The strength of the Lions' pass rush is going to hinge on what they do against those looks.