Lions Improved Pass Rush

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The Lions had a good 2017 draft but many of the “experts” noted their lack of additions along the defensive line until Round 6. GM Bob Quinn was high on the Lions defensive line and noted it as a perceived 2017 strength before the draft. The Lions lacked consistent pressure and only had 26 sacks on the 2016 season. How can the Lions’ defensive line be considered strength for the 2017 season? Let’s take a look how Detroit’s defensive line could be strong in 2017.

Ziggy Ansah
It all starts with Ansah. He was a beast in 2013-2015 and was injured (ankle) for most of the 2016 season. He missed 3 games and played hurt most of the season (until about Week 15). His snaps were limited and he was slowed by his ankle. Speed and mobility is a big key to Ansah’s game.

A healthy Ziggy Ansah is like adding a 12 sack guy to the roster. Ansah only had 2 sacks in 2016 (and 2 in playoff game). It’s more probable Ansah will have 12 sacks than 2 for 2017. Ansah only played 48% of the Lions defensive snaps in 2016. With Ansah back to 70-80 percent of the snaps and healthy, the Lions pass rush will be vastly improved.

+10 sacks (12 not 2) and more pressure

Kerry Hyder

Kerry Hyder had a solid season in 2016 for Detroit. He came out of nowhere with a strong pre-season performance and earned a late roster spot. Hyder earned more and more playing time as Devin Taylor and Ansah were injured and Taylor struggled as the closed end. Hyder had 8 sacks and consistent pressure which is something he can repeat in 2016. Hyder played 658 snaps for 64% of the Lions defensive snaps. He is a young player and earned some experience in 2016. The former Texas Tech Red Raider should see and earn similar snaps for 2017 and should be better with more experience.

8 sack repeat with solid pressure

Cornelius Washington versus Devin Taylor
Devin Taylor played 664 snaps for the Lions defense and struggled against the run and pass rush. Taylor had 4.5 sacks but did not provide a consistent pass rush at all despite a good 2015 season. Taylor is a free agent and hasn’t been re-signed.

Enter Cornelius Washington on a two year deal in free agency. Washington is much more athletic than Taylor which fits Teryl Austin’s attacking scheme. Washington did not fit Chicago’s 3-4 defense but Washington did manage solid play for the Bears at 3-4 defensive end in 2016. Washington has good speed and enough strength to hold the point of attack as a closed end. The bar was set low by Devin Taylor and Washington could provide 4.5 sacks and more consistent pressure.

4.5 sack repeat but more overall pressure than Taylor
Armonty Bryant
Bryant was picked up in October off waivers and did well with the Lions as a situational pass rusher. Bryant had 3 sacks in 5 games for Detroit and played only 104 snaps (10% of defensive snaps). Detroit can get more out of Bryant for a full season on a one year deal but he will still be a situational player. Bryant can bring more pressure and have 5 sacks in 16 games instead of 3 sacks in 5 games. Bryant had 5.5 in 2015 with Cleveland. Five sacks is the most probable scenario for Byrant in 2017.

+2 sacks (5 sacks in 16 from 3 in 5 games)

Ngata and Robinson
Ngata is a solid player still but his pass rush took a hit in 2016 with age. Ngata will be 33 and has one year left on his deal. This could be the last year of his career so expect Ngata to go all out. Ngata has brought a rush before; but had only 1.5 sacks in 2016 in 13 games and 2.5 sacks in 2015 in 14 games. Ngata played 527 snaps (51%) of the snaps in 2016 in 13 games. That number will stay around the same but Ngata is still be a big powerful anchor and can match his 1.5 sack total at least. Ngata brought more consistent pressure in 2015 and that is still very possible for 2017. Anything more out of Ngata is gravy for Detroit for 2017.

A’Shawn Robinson improved over time as a rookie second round pick. Robinson played around 40% of the snaps as a rookie and that number should increase tremendously in year 2. The former Crimson Tide player notched 2 sacks and many passes knocked down. A’Shawn was stout in run defense as the season continued. Robinson was a second round pick and should take a big step in year 2. I’ll be conservative and give him only 2 sacks again but more consistent pressure as he learns the nuances of the game from Ngata.

3.5 sack repeat from the nose tackles combined but more pressure and improved run defense. Also, more snaps logged for Robinson (50-60%)

The Lions added two new three technique defensive tackles in free agency. Tyrunn Walker and Stefan Charles did not play well in 2016. Neither player had notched a sack in 2016 nor consistent pressure; therefore, it is no surprise Detroit didn’t bring either back for 2017.

Detroit added Akeem Spence (4th round pick and starter Tampa Bay) and Jordan Hill (3rd round pick by Seattle). Hill is a good pass rusher but is oft injured. If the Lions get a full season out of Hill, they could fix some of their pass rush woes at defensive tackle. Hill has a 5.5 sack season in 2014. Spence is more of a run defender but could add a clean-up sack. Spence has 5.5 sacks in his career and could nab 1 in 2016. Hill adding two sacks and Spence adding one still improves the Lions by 3 sacks. Any consistent pressure is a bonus for Detroit, especially if Hill stays healthy.

+3 sacks plus average pressure

The Lions linebackers had zero sacks in 2016. They also didn’t have an interception or forced fumble. The Lions drafted Jarrad Davis at ILB at pick 21 and Jalen Reeves-Mabin for the Will spot in Round 4. Tahir Whitehead moves back to OLB where he is much more effective (2015). Antwione Williams (2016 5th round pick) showed flashes as a rookie and can be a solid SAM LB in year 2. DC Teryl Austin likes to blitz and the linebackers can beat the low bar of zero sacks. I’d say 3 sacks will be more probable for the Lions linebackers in 2017. Detroit had 5.5 sacks from LBs in 2015.

+3 (anything is better than nothing)

Secondary Blitz
The Lions had 3 sacks on blitzes from Defensive backs in 2016. That number is pretty reasonable again for 2016 with Miles Killebrew, Tavon Wilson, Glover Quin and nickel corners on blitzes.

3 sacks again for the Lions defense from secondary players

Thornton and Zettel
Each player had 1 sack a piece in limited playing time. Both could nab one sack each again. Zettel played 20 percent of the snaps and Thornton played 30% of the defensive snaps. These numbers should decrease with more playing time from a healthy Ansah, Bryant, Spence, Hill and Robinson. Zettel was a rookie and should also improve in year 2. Thornton looked good early but then disappeared during the season. 2 sacks total is reasonable for both players again with one sack each.

2 sacks again

If you add up the sack increase, it equals 18 more sacks (10 more from Ansah, 2 more from Bryant, 3 more sacks from 3 Techs (Hill and Spence) and 3 more from Linebackers). 26 plus 18 would equal 44 sacks. 44 sacks would have been third best defensive sack total in 2016. Detroit with a heathier Ansah/Bryant, slightly more 3-tech production and non-anemic LB production can easily be a good pressure unit.

A second factor to consider is coverage sacks and pressure. Detroit added to their back 7 a lot in the draft and free agency. Darius Slay missed 2.5 games and was hampered by a hamstring injury. Slay back to 2015 form is a boost for CB1. CB2 improves with Nevin Lawson battling rookie Teez Tabor for the second spot. DJ Hayden was added to battle Quandre Diggs (now healthy after missing final 4 games) and rookie Jamaal Agnew (5th round).

The Lions linebackers couldn’t cover anyone and a good coverage backer in Jarrad Davis was added in Round 1. Linebackers can excel early in their careers. Whitehead improves moving to the outside and rookie Jalen Reeves-Mabin has cover skills as well from the SEC. The Lions linebackers should at the very least be average (or better) in coverage in 2017 which is a huge boost from downright awful.

The Lions have a lot of DB talent and are deeper than ever. Detroit will earn some coverage sacks and allow the defensive line more time to generate sacks, hits and hurries on opposing QBs.

Quinn passed on defensive line in the draft so he could add to the back 7 and red zone threats. Quinn knew he was getting a heathy Ziggy Ansah and Armonty Bryant plus improved the defensive line in free agency with Hill, Spence, and Washington.

Devin Taylor and the former 3-techs (Walker/Charles) set an incredibly low bar for the 2017 team to surpass. The new free agents have the talent to vastly exceed that low bar. More snaps from an experienced Robinson helps this defensive line. Ngata going all out in his final year is very helpful as well. A healthy Ansah is a huge key and vastly improve the pass rush for the Lions. Ansah is also in a contract year so will be playing that much harder.
Detroit could still add talent late in free agency in the form of Mario Willaims or Jared Odrick if they aren’t satisfied with their defensive line during OTAs and training camp.

Detroit should have a top 5 or top 10 at worst pass rush in the 2017 season. The talent, coaching and depth are there. Detroit needs to execute and keep Ziggy Ansah healthy.