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07 Nov 2007

Every Play Counts: Detroit Defensive Line

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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 07 Nov 2007

35 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2007, 5:55am by andy

Comments

1
by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 12:40pm

Hopefully the Lions get rid of Kalimba's contract this offseason-they keep on waiting for him to become John Abraham, but the only thing they have in common is being hurt and their college.

This was pretty much my best case scenario for the Lions defense. The DL plays well enough to mask any problems that the rest of the defense has. It is working for the most part and when they are able to get a lead they are relentless in their pass rush.

2
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 12:41pm

Give Millen credit for hiring a terrific head coach for the existing roster.

3
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 1:00pm

I haven't seen the Lions yet this year. Given Marinelli is a Tampa-2 man, spending big money on the D-line is the way to go. (I'm assuming that the Lions are playing a lot of cover-2).

Cover-2, impressive,(and expensive) D-line, and an offense that can put up big numbers. Are Detroit the poor man's Colts?

4
by Otis Taylor 89 (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 1:16pm

#2 "Give Millen credit for hiring a terrific head coach for the existing roster."

I can't give Matt Millen credit for anything that is a success, however Marinelli seemed to be a good fit from the start.

The Lions have a very interesting schedule left as they have some very difficult teams remaining. So far they have played one team (Tampa Bay) that is probably a playoff team, one team (Wash) that could be one and then a bunch of teams that have fallen on hard times. Lets see how they do once they play GB twice, Dallas, Minn at Minn and the Giants. I say there is more work to be done.

5
by ebongreen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 1:29pm

In many ways the most impressive player on the Lions’ defensive line Sunday was Smith.
Smith who? He's not mentioned in the rest of the article. (Yes, I know I could go look it up - that's not the point.)

6
by ebongreen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 1:30pm

Never mind. I missed the passing mention of Corey Smith three paragraphs previous.

7
by Andy (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 1:32pm

From watching the Detroit Lions, Shaun Rogers is amazing. I also think that their linebackers are very good. Ernie Sims is quick and powerful.

8
by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 1:33pm

#4

the fact that use to lose any team that they played regardless of how they played is a start.

They say Millen has pretty much left personnel decision up to the coaches-not sure how true that is though.

9
by RickD (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 2:01pm

Somebody at SI.com is floating the name of Millen for Executive of the Year. Isn't that a bit like cheering the guy who finished a marathon in 6 hours?

On second thought, it's not even that good.

I suppose it's nice for Lions' fans to see their team playing well after so many years of Millen mediocrity. But I don't think "really low expectations" should count in Millen's favor, not when the low expectations are largely due to his own work.

10
by Terry (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 2:04pm

I didn't get a chance to watch this game, but I watched the NFL Video highlights of it - and check Corey Smith's sack near the beginning of the 3rd quarter, it's around ~1:36 into the game highlights at NFL.com. You can see a Bronco motioning to Smith's side, and I think it's Daniel Graham. He doesn't really do any sort of pass block whatsoever - the play honestly might have been a TE screen or something.

11
by Terry (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 2:07pm

I should add that Graham doesn't really run a route on the play either.

A completely busted screen? Just some short of TE hitch-like route? Damn, the Broncos offensive line looks and sounds to have been dominated.

12
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 2:38pm

Two years ago the Lions came into play a bad Packer team and Samkon Gado out of Liberty University ran for umpteen yards. The lowlight of the game was Rogers getting called for an unsportsmanlike penalty and then just going to the sideline and sitting down as if to say, "To heck with it."

Rogers is the same guy who when healthy and motivated has single-handedly destroyed opposing offensive lines. I write the collective version because Rogers is THAT GOOD when he's feeling "it". When he's not he just coasts through games. By inspection Rogers hasn't been coasting much this season.

Packer fans know firsthand how a good defensive line can hide a poor secondary. The Packer safeties can't cover their own shadows but thanks to pressure quarterbacks more often than not are having to rush throws. I would imagine that Detroit is enjoying the same results.

What of the passel of Detroit wide receivers? Who is the leader of that bunch?

13
by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 2:53pm

Rogers was probably pissed because the Lions got screwed by the refs in that game (where Gado got tackled what seemed like 3 yards deep in the end zone but somehow made it to the 1).

Roy Williams is the "leader", Shaun McDonald has been the 3rd WR that the Lions needed last season. Furrey and Johnson have been solid as well, with Sean McHugh as the TE/H-back doing a little damage each game.

14
by jimm (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 2:53pm

Matt Millen should get little if any credit. Having the built in advantage of picking at the top of the draft for so many years in a row a team can improve despite poor management.

15
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 2:57pm

It may be the case that Millen has simply had the benefit of an owner that allowed him to learn on the job for five years, and now Millen is reasonably competent. I suspected from the beginning that Marinelli would be a good coach, because all the guys out of the Dungy or Kiffin defensive coaching tree have tended to be solid. Herm Edwards gets a lot of ridicule, but his track record ain't bad. Mike Tomlin was obviously solid, even at his young age. Mark my words; Leslie Frazier has a decent chance to get a head job in the next couple of years. I doubted whether a guy like Marinelli would have coached on the defensive side in Tampa as long as he did, unless he was really good.

16
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:04pm

If Marinelli has influenced Martz to stop trying to be a genius, and instead to merely run the offense which gives the team the best chance to win, which means keeping the qb healthy, and consuming some clock by effcient running, along with scoring points, Detroit may continue to improve measurably this year. I'm certainly not going to be surprised if they win four, or perhaps even five, of their last eight.

17
by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:08pm

A healthy Kevin Jones is probably more of the reason why the running game has been used more. I am not even sure if Tatum Bell has been active the last 2 weeks.

18
by mawbrew (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:09pm

Re: 12

You're right about Rodgers. When he is motivated to play, he is incredibly disruptive. Too often (in the past couple of years at least) he doesn't seem interested. I remember that penalty too, that was just...bizarre.

I charted a bunch of Lions games two years ago and even then they got good pressure without blitzing. Being able to drop seven in coverage and know that the QB won't have much time to wait for a receiver to come open is a huge advantage.

I didn't watch either of the Lions games against Philly or Washington. Does anyone know how those teams nuetralized the Detroit DL?

19
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:13pm

"You’re right about Rodgers. When he is motivated to play, he is incredibly disruptive. Too often (in the past couple of years at least) he doesn’t seem interested. "

That doesn't seem to be all that uncommon with elite level players on absolutely awful teams with bad upper management. (Moss comes to mind).

20
by mawbrew (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:15pm

Re: 15

I think you're on to something there. Anybody is going to learn at least a few valuable lessons in five years on the job. Millen got a lot more rope than most guys in that situation.

21
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:22pm

You are probably right, lionsbob, but I will never forget the Rams in the Super Bowl against the Pats, where I am convinced that if Martz had simply handed the ball off to Faulk more frequently, the Rams win. I've always suspected that Martz is the kind of offensive coach who wants to show how smart he is, which leads to more passing than is optimal. Combined with his tendency to allow his quarterbacks to get pounded, and it has led me to have a lot of respect for his skills, while also have some signifigant reservations about his approach. Maybe that is changing a little this season, although it's only been the last few games. Kitna did not lack for contact earlier this year, to engage in understatement.

22
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:27pm

Well, for all the comments about the receiver draft picks, it seems clear to me that the Lions set themselves back the most with the Joey Harrington Era, and I've heard so much conflicting talk about whether that was Millen's choice, or whether he lobbied against it, and was overruled, that I've never had a firm opinion as to who was responsible for the largest debacle of Lions' management in the Millen era.

23
by TED F!@#ING GINN!? (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:31pm

Re 12, 13

I didn't see the game in question, but in fairness to Rogers it could have been that he had to sit. I think some teams have rules that if you get that sort of personal foul (unsportsmanlike conduct, unneccesary roughness, etc.) you have to sit out until the coaches tell you that you can go back in.

Kind of like a cooling off period/punishment for being an idiot.

Not that I disagree that Rogers has always had a case of severe I-play-when-I-want-to-itis.

24
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:38pm

Ted:

Nah. He just said "F*ck it". The coaching staff was equally stunned. According to Packer guys on the radio after the game Rogers had to be ordered to go back on the field. And from that point forward he just meandered around the line of scrimmage.

Will Allen in another thread commented on how Randy Moss and Charles Woodson went from the outhouse to the penthouse relative to their quality of play once they changed teams. I think as long as the Lions stay competitive Rogers will play hard every game.

It's easy for fans to sit back and say a guy should give his all every down of every game. But I can imagine it must be hard come game 11 when your team has 3 wins and you are getting your *ss handed to you for a guy to really exert himself come the end of the third quarter.

Not excusing it. Just saying I can understand how the motivation lessens.

25
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 3:48pm

Clarification:

Rogers was called for that penalty in overtime and that was about 2-3 plays before the game-winning field goal.

26
by zlionsfan (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 4:03pm

Re Bell: yes, he has been inactive the past two weeks, and it turns out he didn't appear to be a good fit for the offense. I mean, T.J. Duckett's been getting carries, and not just when Michigan State had a bye week.

I agree that the resurgence of Jones has been the key to the running game. Frankly, there wasn't much point running in the two or three games prior to his return: nothing was working well, and even if you buy the "run to set up the pass" theory, setting up a consistent third-and-long doesn't really help anything.

I don't know if this is a poor man's Colts team (although that's not a bad metaphor) as much as it's this generation's contending-Lions team. Like the early '90s teams, this one puts points on the board in a hurry if needed, gives up some yards but also gets timely picks, and relies on Jason Hanson for solid field-goal attempts. (Well, okay, he wasn't on the '91 team, but he was the kicker the rest of the time.)

However, as has been noted in other threads, they also seem like the '91 team in that when they're bad, they're awful. I'm not yet convinced that their next meeting with a contender will be any better than their last, but I can't deny that they've exceeded my expectations by far, and that Kitna may not have simply been setting the bar high ...

Whether Millen's learned to leave personnel matters to those who understand them better, or he's learned to draft more guys like Roy and Calvin, he deserves some credit, and I'll grudgingly give it.

Marinelli, on the other hand, deserves quite a bit of it. Coach of the year.

27
by TED F!@#ING GINN!? (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 5:12pm

Re 25:

"Whether Millen’s learned to leave personnel matters to those who understand them better, or he’s learned to draft more guys like Roy and Calvin, he deserves some credit, and I’ll grudgingly give it."

I'm reminded of the scene in Office Space when the Bobs ask that guy: "What, exactly... would you say... you do here?"

Aren't personnel matters supposed to be just about Millen's entire job?

I can see Millen talking to the Ford family:

"I have people skills! I'm good at dealing with people! Can't you understand that!?"

28
by TED F!@#ING GINN!? (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 5:12pm

Re 26, I mean.

29
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 6:02pm

Shaun Rogers wasn't the best Lions defensive lineman that day, he's one of the best in the league. I doubt he weighs 340 lbs. Him in games looks like an NFL player on the street, he is huge. Against the Buccaneers he had more impressive back-to-back plays than mentioned here. First, he blew up the Bucs' center and guard who double teamed him, he knocked them both onto their ass in one motion, and sacked the qb. Next play third down he lines up in a two-point stance outside the tackle and bullrushes him from there to force the incompletion. A guy that big, to run like he did on that TD... furthermore to dive into the endzone showing no sign of being tired, it's unbelievable.

30
by Mike B in VA (not verified) :: Wed, 11/07/2007 - 6:36pm

RE: 18 -

Washington handled it by running, max protecting, throwing a lot of quick patterns, and having a pretty short field most of the day, if I remember right.

31
by Kaveman (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2007 - 2:17am

Without taking anything away from the Lions D-line, I'd question the wisdom of assessing their quality against Denver's current offensive line. With as many new players as the Broncos have playing there, uneven performances are going to be the norm. But that might just be the sad Broncos fan in me talking... ordinarily I'd love to see my team on EPC or AGS... :-/

To make up for that then, a couple of comments from Cutler that Detroit fans might like to hear: "We were having problems up front."

About Rogers: "He's large, he's very large. He anticipates the count well, he causes problems and he obviously felt that screen, he took it 66 yards. He's a force in there."

And click my name for a brief article in a Denver paper that claims that this was as bad as the Broncos O-line has been beaten in 3 years.

32
by Mario DeCarolis (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2007 - 12:21pm

I guarantee the Lion's are going to the Super Bowl if they beat GB on Thanksgiving day. Look at the schedule man! I think the Giants are over rated and we are going to kick teh sh*t out of them. We need to get a tad lucky against Dallas, maybe Witten gets dinged or something... but we have a great shot.

I have been a fan of the Lion's since 1978. I have never given up hope. My intuition told me that this may be the year and I placed $20 on them in Vegas to win the Super Bowl at 70 to 1 odds.

GO LIONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

33
by Matt H (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2007 - 12:51pm

I have no idea why my paragraphs breaks aren't showing up. Deal with it....

I'm not prepared to say that the Lions organization led by Millen has turned the corner but the last two years have been the most productive offseasons of Millen's tenure, which again -- isn't saying much.

He brought in Marinelli and seems to have finally found a coach that agrees with Millen's ideas of how to run the team. With Mooch and Morningweg the coaching staff never seemed to be on the same page as management. You blame Millen for making the dumb hires in the first place, but he finally seems to have found a coach. Marinelli might not be the game's best strategist, or the best gameday coach, but he's a hell of a motivator and seems to have a good concept of how to get the most out of his players by adjusting the schemes to them, not the other way around.

Millen has done a good job in FA and the draft the past two seasons, netting two solid starters in Stephen Peterman (a Dallas castoff due to injuries who has stepped in big at G)and then paying big money (although getting good return) with Dewayne White. The trade that sent Bly packing has been addition by subtraction as George Foster has been a solid starter on RT and Keith Smith (another recent Millen draftee) has stayed healthy and filled in nicely for Bly. Foster has beat out Damien Woody for the job and has fostered a good-natured battle for playing time on the O-Line, competition that is only helping the team improve.

Ernie Sims is Millen's best defensive draftee since Shaun Rogers. From a guy that drafted LB's Teddy Lehman (injuries, not that great when healthy) and Boss Bailey (same story) with high picks this is a welcome change. Gerald Alexander has stepped in as a rookie and been a playmaker at SS.

The team still has major holes in the LB unit behind Sims, although Lehman and Bailey are finally healthy. Paris Lennon has given the team some depth at MLB in the rotation with Lehman. The Lions should probably look to upgrade this unit substantially in the offseason.

The secondary has looked great because of the D-line pressure but this Smith and Bryant are simply average corners, Kenoy Kennedy is a big hitter but lacks great speed, Alexander looks like a keeper. This unit could use a shutdown corner, although were to find one is beyond me.

The offense will get better as Calvin Johnson continues to work back into the flow while trying to put a lingering back injury sustained against the Bears behind him. The team is running stretch plays with KJ while in the 3 and 4 wide sets that are working very well early in ballgames to tire the opposing team. The offensive line is still struggling in pass protection, but Kitna has to get rid of the football sooner -- throw it away!

Although the schedule gets tougher after the Arizona game the Lions will also be playing more games inside on turf in the 2nd half, which should help the Martz offense get some traction.

With a victory over the lowly Cardinals this weekend Detroit will setup the biggest regular season game in decades when they host the Packers on T-Day.

Even if the team falters a bit down the stretch it's already been a successful season for a team coming off a terrible couple of seasons where they won only 8 games in two years.

So far the team has been incredibly healhty relative to the past years. Is there any indcations that certain coaches styles lead to more injuries than others? Injuries seemed to mark the Mornginweg and Mooch eras. This year nearly everyon e has stayed healthy. Furthermore this is the first Lion team I can remember during the Millen era that has some legimate depth along the offensive and defensive lines. When injuries do happen I have no doubt that the other players will step in and do a good job. That's good coaching and good management.

Finally.

34
by Bob Coluccio (not verified) :: Thu, 11/08/2007 - 5:34pm

Having the built in advantage of picking at the top of the draft for so many years in a row a team can improve despite poor management.

Well, yeah. That was his master plan all along. GM of the decade!

It's like the mid-nineties when the Rams were terrible but they kept getting top-5 picks in the draft and I kept saying, holy crap this team is going to be great one of these years.

35
by andy (not verified) :: Fri, 11/09/2007 - 5:55am

i remember the lions' first win of the year, against the raiders,and the raiders offensive line played very well and lamont jordan and justin fargas had good days. i'm sure the lions have improved since week one, but still, they're not an elite unit. in that game i saw back to back plays where shaun rogers would alternate between pushing the guy blocking him off with one hand as though the blocker were just a swinging door and tackling the running back for a loss and getting thrown to the ground by the same player on the next play. and i mean literally thrown to the ground. i mean, aren't the broncos kind of weak right now?