What if I said there might be an answer to the Lions anemic pass rush?
I'm not talking about getting healthy and the return of James Houston, any time you can get a high-end pass rusher like the way James Houston played last year it is going to help your pass rush immensely, Hutchinson can't wait to see a little less attention by opposing offensive lines. Even the chance they get Gardner-Johnson back can help the pass rush if he can help cover the opposing receivers just that half a second longer to take what is a top 10 pass rush in QB pressures to a top 10 pass rush in sacks. So, getting healthy can be a huge part of the answer, but there is more that can be done.
I'm not even talking about Bruce Irvin or any other reclamation project out there, we can all hope he will give us 5 good pass rushing snaps a game, just hoping with a little praying perhaps he hits home a few times. Not even talking about the JJ Watt rumors, I get the feeling JJ was the 1st call while Irvin was somewhere after that on the list of calls Holmes made.
Nope, we might have the answer on the roster already and it's not they should blitz more. Sure, some more blitzing and exotic defenses could help, but the piece they really need to add is staring then right in the face.
They need to let "Twinkle Toes" dance.
Alim McNeil has had a breakout 2023 with 5 sacks and 12 QB pressures, he could be headed to a Pro Bowl in his 3rd season. We know the story of how he dedicated hi9mself in the past off season and has matured into what the Lions hoped he would be when they drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2021 draft. But how can he be an answer to a better pass rush when he is part of the pass rush already?
It's all in how they are using him, or more when they are using him.
Alim is playing just a tick short of 70% of the snaps now so we are not going to be able to just use him more. Maybe we can get him to 75%, but we want to keep him fresh. Other DTs not named Aaron Donald only play 70% or so of the snaps, even Chris Jones in his All-Pro performance last year only played 80% of the snaps, usually he is below 70%. All around the league the stud DTs are playing 70% of their team's defensive snaps so let's don't think McNeil should be any different, we are not going to get more out of him by playing him more.
But what the other teams do with their stud interior pass rushers is use them differently.
The You-Tube channel, A to Z Sports Film Room recently had a nice video on McNeil that if it sounds interesting to you, I can highly recommend you check it out. Lot of film footage and football talk like club move and counters, stick and shed, all the good stuff in one 12-and-a-half-minute video. Now, his suggestion was they play him more, but we just saw where that probably isn't a great idea. But if we can take a few things he brought up and use them correctly we might have something special going on with our Dancing Bear.
The video had the PFF rankings for McNeil and he is their 5th overall rated DT, 5th in run defense, 9th in sacks and 17th in overall pass rush for DTs. Not sure exactly when the rankings were taken, but the video was just before the Thanksgiving game, so it was likely through the first 10 games. Good stuff right, that's one player we are getting production from, but we can get more.
The video included plenty of other stats like alignment and combine numbers, but there was one stat line that really stood out to me and shines a light on how the Lions could and should be getting more pass rush production from the big fella.
According to Sports Info Solutions, McNeil's breakdown of usage by down and distance is.
1st down 71.8% of the total defensive snaps
2nd down 70.9%
3rd and 4th down 55.5%
But if he is our best interior pass rusher, why isn't he used more on 3rd down?
It gets even worse when we consider the distance of the down.
1-3 yards 83.7% of the snaps
4-6 yards 73.0%
7 or more yards 26.1%
That's the one that really sticks out, 26.1% on the snaps we most want our best pass rush, we are taking our best interior pass rusher off the field just when he would be the most effective. Aaron Glenn and the Lions are doing what opposing OLs are struggling to do, contain Alim McNeil. Even Dean Smith knew to use Micheal Jordan in the 4th quarter, why can't Glenn see he needs to use McNeil when it matters the most.
I get it, they bring in all of those big DEs inside like Hutchinson and Cominsky and Paschal to rush the passer from the interior, but answer me this, how is that working out for you?
Okay, the "NASCAR" package worked last year, but it's not working this year. Have to wonder if missing Houston has a little something to do with it, when they don't have to worry about the edges they can allocate more to the interior. So, why not take the guy that is putting the DE/DTs to shame while he is still playing the run first, why not just let him pin his ears back and rush the passer like every other stud DT in the league. Do that and watch that 17th in pass rush ranking get up there with the best in the league.
Okay, if they are playing him more on 3rd and long and we don't want the overall snaps to go up, doesn't that take him away from the run defense where he is the 5th ranked DT in the league. But do we really think that if they take two of Benito, Buggs, Martin or the new guy, Bohanna and play them in the middle that they wouldn't be effective. You can still slip in McNeil for some of the key plays, but for the most part let the big boys handle the early downs. BTW, Benito has as many sacks as Paschal, R Okwara and Cominsky combined with 1 sack, even Buggs with his limited snaps has a sack and I swear I have seen Bohanna in the opposing team's backfield more in the 2 games he has played than I've seen Paschal or Cominsky all season. And these guys big guys are supposed to be stopping the run when they are on the field, somehow, they have combined to have a stronger pass rush than all of the DEs not named Hutchinson.
So, let's play McNeil more on pass rushing downs, you can still use a lot of Hutchinson on the inside in those situations, but do we really need to take what is a top interior pass rusher off the field for Paschal or Cominsky all of the time?
Shoot, I wouldn't even be opposed to playing Alim a little at DE just to shake things up once in a while, but that's just me, I mostly want them to start using one of our best players in a way that helps fix our biggest problem. Then we can add in a healthy Houston and maybe Irvin can give us a half a dozen good pass rushes on the outside, now we are talking a pretty impressive NASCAR package with Hutchinson and McNeil in the middle of those two, just in time for the playoffs.
The more I think about this, the angrier I get, for the life of me I can't think of a single reason why they are doing this, why are they not taking advantage of what they have. This is what they developed McNeil to be, he has done his part, why won't the Lions let this big dog eat. Lions have a budding star if they let him shine and it just so happens the Lions need a star in that exact constellation, interior pass rush.
It's staring them right in the face. If Glenn can't see it, Dan Campbell needs to point this out, and if he can't see it, Brad Holmes needs to mention it, and if they still can't see it, I know Speilman can. Somebody needs to get this grievous error fixed and fixed soon or the Lions could waste what is a very promising year.