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Lions' three-headed DT monster could shake division

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Ndamukong Suh gives Detroit a vital weapon to combat Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. (US Presswire)  
Ndamukong Suh gives Detroit a vital weapon to combat Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. (US Presswire)  

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- People who watch Detroit's Matthew Stafford practice this summer keep telling me how terrific the quarterback looks and how effective his offensive line has been protecting him. Well, good. Because a healthy Matthew Stafford might determine how far the Lions go.

Of course, Stafford can't raise the Titanic alone. If you play in the NFC North you better have something more than a quarterback to catch Green Bay and Chicago; you better have something -- or someone -- to squeeze Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, too.

And the Detroit Lions do.

I'm talking about their defensive line in general and their defensive tackles in particular. Ndamukong Suh is one of them; rookie Nick Fairley and Corey Williams are the others. And all play pivotal roles in the resurrection of the Detroit Lions.

Suh needs no introduction. He was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, and I'd be shocked if he didn't pull down Defensive Player of the Year votes this time around. In fact, based on what I saw of the guy in 2010, I'd make him a leading contender.

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Fairley is the Lions' first-round draft pick, but you won't find him at practice. He's recovering from a broken foot, an injury that required surgery to insert a screw -- and while he no longer walks in a protective boot he probably won't be ready for the regular-season opener.

Big deal. It's a 16-game season, and the Lions seem unconcerned. Besides, they have Williams, another disruptive force in the middle, and I think you can see where this is going: With Suh and Fairley as starters and Williams rotating in and out of the lineup, how does anyone block Detroit's defensive tackles?

"You probably have to use four guys," said defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.

Well, now, we're getting somewhere. As I said, if you're serious about challenging Green Bay and Chicago you better be serious about attacking the pocket, and I mean attacking it without having to blitz. The Lions are, and look for them to push the middle with Suh, Fairley, Williams and Sammie Hill. Look for them to attack the edge, too, with people like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson -- provided, of course, Vanden Bosch is healthy. An injured shoulder kept him out of practice again Wednesday.

Their linebackers are so much better that coach Jim Schwartz calls them "our most improved position," while the secondary is still a question mark -- though there should be fewer leaks with Eric Wright at cornerback and the improved Amari Spievey at one safety.

Anyway, the bottom line is this: The Lions can and will pressure quarterbacks, and that's how they start to move forward. Two years ago they had the worst pass defense on the planet, and it showed in NFC North contests. Not only were they 0-6, they were outscored 199-88.

One year later, they jumped from 32nd against the pass to 16th and moved from 26 sacks in 2009 to 44. They also were 2-4 within the division and outscored 111-97. Of course a year later, they added Suh, Williams and Vanden Bosch. Now they've added Fairley, and I can only imagine the confusion Detroit causes when he rejoins the lineup.

"The thing that's most difficult for an offense is when a quarterback's getting pressure without a blitz," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz. "It's very, very difficult if the quarterback doesn't have quick answers. If there's a blitz, there are a lot of one-on-ones available. But if you can pressure without blitz you can do so many more things in the secondary.

"They're all tied together. Hopefully, with the way things go, we can score some points that will allow guys up front to rush the passer more."

That's where Stafford comes in, and, as I said, so far, so good. But we still need to see him survive a 16-game season. The loss of rookie running back Mikel Leshoure hurt, and a nagging hamstring injury to second-round draft pick Titus Young bears watching. But I have no doubt the Lions will score … and score a lot … and that their defense starts flexing some muscle.

That makes them a tough out, and consider that a warning. Opponents used to hammer these guys because they couldn't defend the pass. So they drafted one of the top defensive linemen out there, paired him with one of the top defensive tackles anywhere and now turn them loose on opponents.

Smart. I mean, if you're going to beat Green Bay, you better have an answer for Rodgers. If you're going to beat Chicago, you better be able to frazzle Cutler. The Lions can, and, more important, they can do it without having to blitz.

"That's something we pride ourselves on," Suh said. "We want to be able to affect the QB at any point and time. I personally don't like when we blitz because it tells me exactly where I have to go and doesn't allow me to improvise a little bit -- which is what our coaches allow us to do when we're in our base."

The idea of Suh improvising at anything should make offensive coordinators cringe and quarterbacks cower. The guy is a one-man wrecking ball, last week ripping through Cincinnati's offensive line to turn rookie quarterback Andy Dalton upside down.

"I've never seen anyone like him," said Cunningham. "He amazes me every time I watch him. He is what he is, and he's a freak. But I've got news for [opponents]: When the next guy [Fairley] gets well, he has that same ability."

Tell me about it. The Detroit Lions understand it's a passing league. Heck, the last two seasons they had to play Rodgers, Cutler and Brett Favre. But they also understand that it's high time they did something about it, and I'm not talking about outscoring Rodgers and Cutler. I'm talking about stopping them.

Then beating them.

Granted, the Packers are loaded, but Detroit beat them down the stretch last season in a battle of backup quarterbacks and fell just short in October in a 28-26 loss at Lambeau. The Lions should have beaten Chicago in the season opener, too, but lost when Calvin Johnson's game-winning catch was overruled. Three months later, they nearly took the Bears down again in a 24-20 defeat.

The Lions didn't have Stafford then, and they didn't have Fairley. Both will make a difference this season if both can stay on the field.

"If we can get a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter," said Schwartz, "then, all of a sudden, it's a little different -- and that's part of the deal with putting these pieces in place."

Exactly. Which is why I'd start paying attention to Detroit. I know Green Bay and Chicago are ... and they should be.

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