All NFL playoff teams have a calling card, a strength to fall back upon when things begin to head south.
Despite possessing the likes of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, however, when it came to the 2014 Detroit Lions, the clout came from the club’s defense, the second-ranked stop unit in all of football.
And it all started up front in the Motor City with a defensive line which was certainly among the most talented in the game. The group was particularly stout up the middle, leading the NFL in rush defense by allowing a paltry 69.3
yards per game on the ground.
And a sequel is going to be difficult when you consider all-world defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, perhaps the best defensive lineman in the NFL not named J.J. Watt, took his talents to South Beach for a massive free-agent deal. Meanwhile, his running mates inside also found hew homes with Nick Fairley moving on to join St. Louis’ talented front and C.J. Mosley reuniting with Suh in Miami.
George Johnson, another key member of the line who had a breakout year in 2014, signed a three-year, $9 million offer sheet with Tampa Bay, a deal the Lions disputed and threatened to take to arbitration before working out a trade, sending Johnson to the Bucs, along with a seventh-round draft pick, for a fifth-rounder.
That’s a ton of upheaval for defensive line coach Jim Washburn’s group and the only real proven commodities returning this time around are starting ends Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones.
“There’s not a George Johnson out there,” Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said at last week’s minicamp when addressing his defensive line and who might step up. “But there’s a Daryl Tapp, there’s Devin Taylor. They’re their own people. They have their own techniques and fundamentals and things that they utilize.”
Tapp, the 30-year-old journeyman with stops in Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington before landing in Detroit, believes things will continue to run smoothly thanks to the additions of interior players Haloti Ngata, a five-time All-Pro in Baltimore, and Tyrunn Walker.
“Haloti’s a massive man, an All-Pro guy,” Tapp told the Detroit Free Press. “He makes things happen when he’s out there. T-Walk, another guy who can make a lot of plays, very athletic. He’s probably the most unknown person going into the season. He’s very athletic and can make a lot of things happen.”
As good as Ngata was in the Charm City, he’s no Suh and at 31 the former Raven is regarded as a descending player. Walker, meanwhile, doesn’t have the pedigree of Fairley, a former No. 13 overall pick in ’11.
“One of the things that you saw with (Walker) right away is that he’s extremely versatile,” Caldwell said. “He played inside, he played outside and you can see as you watch him on the field he can run to the ball. He’s a big guy that can move.”
The wild card inside might be second-year player Caraun Reid, a fifth-round selection out of Princeton who displays a good upfield burst and solid athleticism. Obviously, as an Ivy Leaguer Reid has the smarts to play in this league but needed to add functional football strength to hold up on the interior of an NFL defense.
“He’s done a great job in terms of tailoring what he eats,” Caldwell said when discussing Reid. “He is very conscious of that. But not only that, he’s doing all the extra little things to try to get himself where he becomes a better performer. ”
Outside Caldwell seems high on ends Taylor, a fourth-round pick out of South Carolina in ’13, as well as Larry Webster, a fourth-rounder last year out of Bloomsburg.
“Webster’s one of those guys (we hope steps up),” Caldwell said. “We hope Devin Taylor’s one of those guys that comes through and plays well. The guys that have always played well for us, we hope that they’re better. That’s the key. I do think that we have the makings of it. It’s a tight unit, they work hard together.”
Caldwell and GM Martin Mayhew are hedging their bets though with Tapp, a team leader, and fellow veteran Corey Wootton, signed after a year with division-rival Minnesota.
“(Tapp’s) enthusiasm is unmatched because he does it every single day, every minute of the day,” Caldwell claimed. “Guys gravitate toward him, he’s a leader, great family man, has his life in order and he’s a great example for the young guys as well. But he loves the game. That’s what you see and you hear is the passion that he has for this game.”
In a league where continuity is usually king, though, Caldwell needs to possess a healthy skepticism.
“We do have some flexibility. We do have a number of guys that have some unique traits that can bounce around inside and outside,” the coach claimed. “but typically we package those things together. We try to put them in the roles that best suit them from a physical standpoint. Some of those roles, we won’t clearly be able to identify until we get pads on … Let’s get ourselves rolling through preseason and let’s see what we have. I’m excited about it.”
If everything works out like the Lions drew it up great but that’s unlikely, meaning a high-powered offense that wasn’t nearly as effective as it was expected to be a year ago must regain its mojo if Detroit plans the playoff sequel.
“Well, what I said a little bit earlier is that our offense has got to improve,” Caldwell offered before catching himself, “our defense has got to improve and our special teams has got to improve. Those three areas, so that’s all across the board. We expect them to be good, that’s what our standards are.”
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