NFL: JAN 01 Bears at Lions
Getty Images

Pressuring an opposing quarterback consistently is a key to a victory no matter who a team is playing. For the third-seeded Detroit Lions, pressuring top-seeded San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy in Sunday's NFC Championship is paramount. 

When Purdy wasn't pressured dropping back to pass in the regular season, he had an NFL-best 115.2 passer rating with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in addition to an NFL-best 9.7 yards per pass attempt. No other quarterback had a yards per pass attempt over 8.5. When Purdy was pressured when dropping back to pass he had a passer rating of 25.2, the fourth-worst in the entire NFL this season, with no touchdowns and one interception. His yards per pass attempt also plummeted to 5.5, 16th in the league. 

For context, a 115.2 passer rating is one point higher than Hall of Famer Peyton Manning's rating from the 2013 season in which he set the NFL's single-season passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477) records. A 25.2 passer rating is 14.4 points lower than the passer rating generated by throwing only incompletions, 39.6. 

Lions Pro Bowl edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson is currently on a roll and well-equipped to be a thorn in Purdy's side. He has eight sacks in the last four games, including the playoffs, after having just 6.5 sacks in his first 15 games this season. Hutchinson has recorded 11 consecutive games with five or more quarterback pressures including the postseason, which is the longest streak by any player since Pro Football Focus began tracking this statistic in 2017. His 118 quarterback pressures this season are the most in the NFL this year, including postseason play. 

However, Hutchinson needs some help to convert pressures into sacks for the Lions. He totaled 11.5 sacks in the regular season while the rest of Detroit's squad totaled 29.5 sacks for a team total of 41, tied for the ninth-fewest in the NFL. No other Lion had more than five sacks. That's a baffling considering the Lions' 41.6% team quarterback pressure rate was the fourth-best in the entire league in the regular season. Their 6.5% team sack rate was the 11th-lowest in the league this year. 

Good thing the Lions are getting their second-best sack artist back in second-year linebacker James Houston, a 2022 sixth-round pick, just in time for the NFC championship game. Houston racked up eight sacks in seven games played as a rookie in 2022, but he fractured his ankle in the team's 37-31 overtime loss against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 this season. Detroit activated him off of injured reserve 10 days ago, but they held him out of their NFC divisional round win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He practiced fully all of this week and does not have an injury designation entering Sunday's game at San Francisco. He's back. 

"Every time I go on the field, I want to do my job. I'm a playmaker at heart," Houston said, via the team's website, after being activated off of IR on January 18. "I want to be able to affect the game in any way that I can and be able to change the game."  

Hutchinson couldn't contain his excitement about getting his pass-rush running mate back. 

"It feels like we're really getting the pieces coming together right now," Hutchinson said on January 18 when asked about Houston's return. "It's very exciting. I can't wait for James to get back. I know he's kind of getting his feet (under him). I don't know how much he's going to play but it's going to be good to get him back."  

Based on the way head coach Dan Campbell talked about Houston's return, it's unclear how many snaps he will receive in his first game back in 133 days, but he will have a role. Campbell, who might be the league's best head coach when it comes to motivational speeches, said much of how Houston plays will come down to the linebacker's confidence level.

"Whenever you're coming off an injury, any player, it's just a matter of how fast you can get your confidence back in your own abilities, your body," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said of Houston last week. "You're rusty. It takes a minute to get used to what it is, cause it's not going to feel like it did before, it just never does. So, a lot of that will be just time on task, getting out there moving, running and see how far he can come."  

How far Houston and Hutchinson come when pass-rushing Purdy could decide who represents the NFC in Super Bowl LVIII.