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07 Nov 2007
by Michael David Smith
You saw the highlight: Shaun Rogers, the Detroit Lions' 340-pound defensive tackle, intercepts a Patrick Ramsey pass and rumbles 66 yards for a touchdown, with a stiff-arm down the stretch and a dive into the end zone. One of the plays of the year.
But plays like that aren't repeatable: Rogers could play 10 more years and never get the ball in his hands in the open field like that again.
What is repeatable is a defensive tackle out-maneuvering a center and sacking a quarterback, or a defensive end overpowering an offensive tackle and stuffing a running back. And I saw a lot of plays like that from the Lions' defensive line as I watched them on every play of Detroit's 44-7 victory over the Denver Broncos Sunday.
Lions coach Rod Marinelli was hired on the strength of his 10 seasons as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive line coach, and he has made the defensive line his top priority in Detroit. But it probably surprises Marinelli that Rogers has emerged as the best player on that line. There was talk when Marinelli first arrived in Detroit that he thought Rogers was too big and slow to play the style of defense that Marinelli wanted to import from Tampa, and that he wanted Rogers to lose weight. That hasn't happened -- Rogers is as big as ever -- but Rogers is just fine in Marinelli's defense.
Actually, he's better than fine. Rogers plays the nose tackle, meaning he lines up opposite the center and is responsible mostly for what's directly in front of him, and in that role he flourishes. Some nose tackles just take up a lot of space, but Rogers is surprisingly mobile for a big man (and not just with the ball tucked under his arm).
In the second quarter Rogers abused Broncos center Chris Myers (playing in place of the injured Tom Nalen, whom the Broncos dearly miss), pushing him straight back and sacking Jay Cutler for an eight-yard loss, knocking Cutler out of the game. Myers might as well not have been there; I don't think Rogers could have covered that eight yards any faster even if he hadn't had anyone in front of him. On the very next play, Rogers hit Ramsey, Cutler's replacement, just as Ramsey passed.
One of Rogers' greatest strengths is his knack for anticipating the snap count. He sacked Ramsey early in the fourth quarter on the kind of play that looked like Rogers knew Ramsey's cadence and the Broncos' offensive line didn't.
And, of course, Rogers makes a huge impact against the run, even though he didn't have any tackles on running plays Sunday, because simply by lining up at the nose and holding his ground he prevents the opposing offensive line from opening holes in the middle.
The Lions' other starting tackle, Cory Redding, is supposed to be the better fit for Marinelli's defense because he's quicker and about 50 pounds lighter. Redding plays the three-technique tackle, also known as the under tackle, which means he lines up farther from the center than Rogers and is expected to cover more of the field.
He's fine in that role and made some big plays Sunday -- he hit Ramsey as he was throwing once, tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage once and was in on a tackle four yards behind the line of scrimmage. But I also saw too many plays like the third-and-1 in the first quarter when Redding shot the gap and penetrated the line, but got out of position in the process and allowed Broncos running back Travis Henry to run past him to pick up the first down. On plays like that, a big fat guy like Rogers is more effective.
I really like the way backup defensive tackle Langston Moore plays against the run. He had a big tackle where he came from the backside and brought down Henry for a gain of just two yards on a play that could have gone a lot longer, and he was generally unmovable when runs went in his direction. He can also play the pass: In the third quarter, when Rogers and backup defensive end Corey Smith split a sack, it was actually Moore who caused the sack by collapsing the pocket. Moore has been in the league since 2003 but played just 26 games in his first four years, 15 with the Bengals and 11 with the Cardinals. He's thriving in Detroit.
The Lions' major off-season addition was defensive end Dewayne White, who spent three years playing for Marinelli in Tampa. White was a backup as a Buccaneer, and it was surprising that the Lions decided to pay him like an established starter, but Marinelli knew what he was doing: White is good.
White got the better of Broncos left tackle Matt Lepsis from the very first play, when he blew Lepsis into the backfield, forcing Henry to change course and allowing Lions linebacker Ernie Sims to tackle him for a loss of a yard. White also had a very good series in the third quarter after the Lions pinned the Broncos at their own three-yard line: On first down he tackled Henry for a gain of a yard; on second down he tipped Ramsey's pass at the line of scrimmage; and on third down he rushed Ramsey and was about a half-second away from sacking him for a safety.
In addition to Rogers, Redding and White, the Lions' fourth starter Sunday was Jared DeVries, who ordinarily wouldn't start but has been pressed into service the last two weeks because of injuries. (The Lions have been playing without first-string defensive end Kalimba Edwards as well as backup Ikaika Alama-Francis). But for a backup, DeVries played very well Sunday, especially when matched up against Broncos right tackle Erik Pears. DeVries ended the Broncos' first series with a third-down sack of Cutler in which he threw Pears back with such force that you'd think Pears was a high school player. DeVries also hit Ramsey as he passed once and stuffed Henry at the line of scrimmage once.
In many ways the most impressive player on the Lions' defensive line Sunday was Smith. Not that Smith was the best player -- that was definitely Rogers -- but Smith is a 250-pound career backup who only played because there were injuries to other defensive ends, and he was relentless. He finished the day with 1.5 sacks, and he forced a fumble that White picked up and took in for a touchdown. Like White, Smith is an undersized hustler who previously played for Marinelli in Tampa. Marinelli knows what he likes, and by assembling a line full of the kinds of players he likes, he has built a good unit.
It's also an expensive unit. Redding signed a seven-year, $49 million contract this year that included $16 million in guarantees, making him the league's highest-paid defensive tackle. The Lions gave White a five-year, $29 million contract this year and Rogers signed a six-year contract in 2005 with $15 million guaranteed. So the Lions' big production on the defensive line is coming at a big price against their salary cap. But that's a big improvement over the situation they've found themselves in at wide receiver for most of the Matt Millen era, when they were paying a big price and getting very little production.
It's still far too early to call these Lions a good defense. I'm not high on either of their starting cornerbacks, Fernando Bryant or Travis Fisher, and I think their linebackers are good athletes but not fundamentally sound football players. But if they're not a good defense yet, the line is talented enough that they're at least at the point where they could become good. For the Lions, that's progress.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.
35 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2007, 5:55am by andy