The Lions have been struggling to find a book end pair of defensive ends to cement their pass rush for a very long time. Not since the days of Robert Porcher and Tracy Scroggins, the first and second round picks of the Lions in the 1992 draft, have the Detroit Lions been able to field a consistently effective pair of pass rushers. Even with that pair Scroggins had an injury plagued career and was most effective as a situational pass rusher than a three down defensive end.
Scroggins retired after the 2001 season and the Lions answer was by James Hall, the Lions first round pick in the 2000 draft. Porcher retired after an injury slowed and ineffective 2003 season and Hall’s only double digit sack season came in 2004. They were never an effective pair. Corey Redding replaced Porcher, but his only good season as a pass rusher for the Lions came after he switched to a 3 technique defensive tackle role.
Kalimba Edwards had a promising season in 2005 but signed a massive deal that offseason and then disappeared quickly and completely enough to be cut from the 2008 Detroit Lions roster. The Lions had a couple seasons with Jared Devries and Dwayne White starting, neither of whom ever reached seven sacks in a season in the NFL.
In 2010 Cliff Avril grabbed a starting role full time across from free agent pick up Kyle Vanden Bosch, and in 2011 the Detroit Lions had their most effective pair. Avril posted his second best season, 11 sacks, and Vanden Bosch posted eight. The Lions played hard ball with Avril’s contract and Vanden Bosch was in his 30s. The following year they combined for 13.5 sacks, 9.5 of which came from Avril. Avril left for Seattle, at a lower price tag than the Lions had offered him in the 2013 offseason.
At that point, the Lions struck gold with Ezekiel Ansah. Ziggy was immediately effective as a rookie posting eight sacks, but has played opposite Willie Young (who has been better in Chicago than he ever was in Detroit), Jason Jones (who has never exceeded five sacks in a year), and finally Devin Taylor. George Johnson, and then Taylor excelled in situational pass rush roles across from Ansah, but he has had only part time players apply any secondary pressure from the other edge. Kerry Hyder appeared to be the most likely player to form an effective book end with Ansah in 2017. Hyder, however, has an Achilles injury that has been called “Serious” by Jim Caldwell.
Bob Quinn has done some work this off-season, however. Cornelius Washington was a 265 lb situational pass rusher in college who ran a 4.55 40 yard dash at his combine in 2013. He ended up in Chicago. The Bears, being the Bears, decided to transition him to a 3-4 five technique role and ask him to gain 30 pounds after his second season. Unsurprisingly, Washington has not impressed. Quinn signed Washington to an incentive loaded two-year contract that pays most of its money in year two. The team can move on with minimal salary cap impact if the gamble does not pay out. Washington didn’t play Sunday.
Quinn wasn’t done there and also signed college free agents Jeremy Voloaga and Alex Barrett. Both have been getting rave reviews in Lions camp. However, given the questionable play, the Lions have received from their tackles it was difficult to believe the hype. Barrett was very effective early in the game on stunts. He effectively pushed interior offensive linemen into the front of the pocket. He prevented the Colts’ quarterbacks from scrambling or stepping up to avoid pressure on multiple occasions. Voloaga Showed ability against the run. He has an understanding of his role in that aspect of the game. He was not as impressive rushing the passer.
The Lions also drafted Pat O’Connor in the seventh round of the 2017 Draft. Quinn has said that in the seventh round he is not looking at the best player available, but the best player available that he is not sure he can sign after the draft. O’Connor did not really touch the field until the second half despite Hyder’s injury. He did not show the same burst as Barrett or the same strength as Voloaga. He certainly did not play poorly. O’Connor is a raw prospect from a small school. He showed the athleticism that got him drafted, but he will not be filling in for the Lions along the line anytime soon. All three of the Lions rookie defensive ends were effective enough in the pass rush to record a sack.
The Hero Detroit Deserves
The best defensive end the Lions had Sunday against the Colts was Anthony Zettel. He flashed talent in 2016 but was very raw. If there is an in house solution to the pass rush problem it is most likely him. He stood in for the inactive Ziggy Ansah in Indianapolis before Hyder’s injury. He was more often on the left side of the defense afterward. As the second quarter commenced, he played as a three technique too. From all three spots, Zettel was a player that the Colts needed to be aware of on every play.
The Lions definitely got a look at exactly how far Zettel has come along going into his second year. Against the Colts starters, he provided a level of pass rush that would get to the quarterback if they held the ball too long or had to evade a better pass rusher. Zettel got his hands in the way when he couldn’t get there. He also chased down a very mobile quarterback more than once. He gave the Lions about all they could reasonably ask for a sixth round draft pick entering his sophomore season.
This was the first preseason game, and the point of that game is to avoid injuries to anyone that matters and to get rookies their first taste of game action. The Lions defensive end group was half successful. It may be too late for them to fix this. Cornelius Washington’s play will be something Lions fans will be watching closely as the weeks roll on. There are effective pass rushers available, allegedly. Sheldon Richardson of the New York Jets and Marcel Dareus of the Bills have been the targets of trade rumors. Tamba Hali has also publicly ripped the Chiefs for not using him enough in the pass rush and may be available. The first two are interior defensive linemen, however, and Hali has spent his career as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He has a $5.5 millions dollar cap hit and has ten sacks in the last two seasons. The solution likely needs to come from within the current roster.