If any one playing group had a larger impact than the Lions defensive line did for them, on any other NFL team during the 2010 NFL season, I would be surprised. The Lions defensive line made the Lions defense (16th in passing defense, 24th rushing defense, 21st in total defense) both imposing and viable, while presenting match-up problems that neutralized Lions opponents ability to take advantage of their undermanned back seven.
The 2010 Lions were coming off of a run of seasons where they were ranked historically among the all-time worst NFL defenses. There was little reason to expect that the Lions would have made the gains that they were able to make during this season.
The Lions made several bold strokes this off-season, in an attempt to improve their lot. Jim Schwartz actively recruited his former Titans player, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and was able to convince him to sign with the Lions at the opening of free agency.
The Lions also had the best NFL prospect of the 2010 draft fortuitously fall into their laps, DT Ndamukong Suh. Boy howdy, did Suh deliver, too. Suh, a “Shuh-In” for NFL Defensive Rookie of the year, was a true difference maker and force to be reckoned with (likely, for years to come, too).
Vanden Bosch and Suh delivered both a presence and attitude, while devastating opposing offensive lines and QB’s. Vanden Bosch, who unfortunately missed the final five games, brought an unmatched effort and toughness that seemingly brought the entire defense along with him.
If the additions of Vanden Bosch and Suh were all that the Lions front office accrued during the off-season, it would have been notable. Where Martin Mayhew truly pulled off a remarkable coup, in moves that made a huge difference for the Lions defense, was in his low cost acquisitions of DT Corey Williams (and a 2010 7th round pick for a Lions 2010 5th round pick) and DE Lawrence Jackson (6th rounder in 2011).
Those improvements, along with the progress made by players like DT Sammie Lee Hill and DE Cliff “Kompared to Kalimba No More!” Avril, along with valuable depth provided by versatile DE Turk McBride and DT Andre Fluellen, made the Lions defensive front comparable with the league’s best.
One change that went highly unrecognized, was the retirement of Bob Karmelowicz (who has since deceased) and promotion of a young, fiery defensive line coach named Kris Kocurek. Kocurek had a great deal of success, with admittedly, a lot of resources to work with.
A lasting image for me of the 2010 season will always be of Kocurek, wearing a headset and sporting a chaw in his cheek, slapping his defensive linemen’s backs as they leave the field, after another big defensive stop.
The Lions defensive coaching staff seemingly willed the Lions defense to become competitive. Lions defense Gunther Cunningham, always a fiery and aggressive presence, truly utilized his defensive front four to his advantage.
Last season, Cunningham would continually dial up blitzes, out of desperation. This season, the Lions front four generated enough pass rushing pressure that often the Lions could rush four and drop seven into coverage. That being said, whenever the attacking tendencies of Cunningham were needed, he was able to more thoughtfully sprinkle in blitzes to disrupt opponents, rather than as a means of preventing opposing QB’s from picking apart the Lions defense.
The Lions were 6th in the NFL with 44 sacks. Of which, 37 were produced by the Lions front four (Lawrence “Lo-Jack” Jackson 6.0, Ndamukong Suh 10.0, Kyle Vanden Bosch 4.0, Cliff Avril 8.5, Sammie Lee Hill 2.5, Andre Fluellen 1.0, Turk McBride 5.0)!
Something we are not fully capable of measureing is how often the Lions defensive line impacted (and altered) opponents offensive game plans by forcing them into third and long distances. We will never know how often opponents had fewer pass catching options due to max-protect blocking schemes (keeping tight ends and backs out of pass routes to block) or how many checked down, dump off passes were made as a result of oncoming pressure. Lastly, we will not know how many incomplete passes came as a result of poorly thrown balls that were awkwardly rushed in response to the pressure of the Lions front four.
If I were to grade the Lions defensive line collectively, I’d give them an “A-“. They could have earned an “A” grade, had they not accumulated so many encroachment and costly personal foul penalties, a season long bug-a-boo.
Kyle Vanden Bosch: B+ (A+ for effort)
Ndamukong Suh: A- (he was still a rookie, after all)
Corey Williams: A- (penalties, nearly unblockable at times)
Cliff Avril: A (for proving me wrong (the death of his Kalimba Part Deux nickname) and becoming a force…now deliver for seasons to come!)
Turk McBride: A (excellent job as a fill-in and player who made big steps forward this season)
Andre Fluellen: B (serviceable, but Corey Williams playing so well made him the least acknowledged member of the Lions defensive line, in the playing group)
Sammie Lee Hill: B+ (easily could have been starter, if not for the presence of Suh)
Willie Young: INC (a project, who may or may not have a future with the organization. “Hawaii Five-Oh”, who?)
Lawrence “Lo-Jack” Jackson: A- (as a former first rounder, had high expectations. Still excellent production from a backup)