Why the Lions’ pass rush will be improved in 2017 despite several key losses on the defensive line
In 2016, the Lions’ pass rush was pathetic. They finished with just 26 sacks over the entire season, the second worst of any team in the NFL. Kerry Hyder led the team with 8.5 sacks, but after an Achilles injury, he is set to miss all of the 2017 season. Second leading sacker, Devin Taylor (4.5 sacks), left in free agency to play for the New York Giants. Armonty Bryant and Khyri Thornton (who combined for four sacks) are both still with the Lions but will miss time this season due to suspensions.
The top three sack leaders of the 2016 Lions defense will miss parts of the season or not play at all for the Lions in 2017. A fourth member of the defensive line rotation is out for the first several games of the season with a suspension. Here are the ways that the Lions can not only overcome this but improve on their pass rush from a season ago.
Defensive Line Tricks to Bolster Pass Rush
Teryl Austin, the defensive coordinator for the Lions, is known for his creativity with defensive line rotations, stunts, and other oddities. Although the Lions had little success with these exotic defensive looks in 2016, a lot of that can be blamed on poor defensive line depth and a lacking linebacker corps behind the line.
Although Detroit is still lacking star power on their defensive line, they have much better depth at the end and tackle positions than they did a year ago. The additions of Akeem Spence and the hyper-athletic Jeremiah Ledbetter will help the defensive tackle rotation, while Cornelius Washington, Alex Barrett, and Jeremiah Valoaga are high potential players at defensive end.
Austin likes to rotate his defensive line as much as any coordinator in the NFL. His philosophy is that a good rotation of players will keep the defensive linemen fresh as the offensive line gets worn down and tired out throughout a game. With the improved depth, rotating defensive line players should be much more successful this season.
Teryl Austin is also known for his creative defensive playcalling to try and generate pressure. He does everything from blitzing all of his linebackers, to dropping defensive linemen into coverage, to defensive line stunts. All of these things will be more effective with the new, more athletic 2017 Detroit Lions defensive line.
In the 2017 season, the Lions linebackers had zero sacks. Whenever they blitzed, they did a horrible job of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, resulting in the middle of the field being wide open. The Lions needed to add talent to their linebacking corps over the offseason to have any sort of decent pass rush, and that’s just what they did.
The Lions selected two linebackers in the Draft a few months ago, Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Davis started at middle linebacker for two seasons for the Florida Gators, and over those two seasons, he made six sacks. Reeves-Maybin was also a starter for two full seasons, his team was the Tennessee Volunteers, and he was able to record eight sacks in those two seasons, including a six-sack Junior season.
The Lions also signed linebacker Paul Worrilow in free agency. Worrilow has made four sacks in his four professional seasons, and, although that isn’t a great number of sacks, it is still an improvement over what Detroit had last season.
By improving the blitzing abilities of the linebackers this offseason, Detroit should be able to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Ineffective blitzing was a big problem for the 2016 Lions’ defense, and these three new linebackers should be a solution to that problem.
A Return To Form For Ziggy Ansah
2016 was Ziggy Ansah’s worst professional season by a large margin. Ansah recorded only two sacks over the entire 2016 season. His career low sack total over a season before that was 7.5 in 2014. Over Ansah’s first three seasons in the NFL, he averaged 10 sacks per season, including a 14.5 sack season in 2015.
However, towards the end of the season, there was reason for optimism. Ansah finished the season with four sacks in the last four games, counting the wildcard playoff game against the Seahawks.
Ansah started the preseason on the Physically Unable to Perform list but was taken off it a few days ago, making him eligible to play in the Lions’ season opener this Sunday.
There is reason to believe that Ansah can go back to being the dominant player he was in the first three season of his career, and if he does, that alone will elevate the performance of the entire Lions defense.