When the season began, it was fair to wonder if the Detroit Lions had the best defensive front in the NFL. They had added rookie Nick Fairley to a group that included Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, and a talent upgrade at linebacker figured to deflect at least some attention from opponents.
With 13 games in the books, now seems like a good time to take stock of what the Lions' defensive line has wrought this season and recognize its impact on what could be the team's first playoff berth in more than a decade.
The league-wide split between 4-3 and 3-4 defenses makes it difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons of defensive fronts by position. A 3-4 linebacker might be a defensive end in a 4-3, and vice versa. But here are three key flash points that apply to any defensive front:
Lions defensive linemen have 29 sacks this season, better than the total sack figures for half the teams in the NFL. Their starting ends, Avril (nine) and Vanden Bosch (seven), are both approaching double figures, and the Lions have also gotten a combined 6.5 sacks from reserve defensive ends Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young.
Lions defensive linemen have forced 11 fumbles: Six by Avril, four by Vanden Bosch and one by defensive tackle Andre Fluellen. That's as good or better than the totals of four NFL teams, and it's the biggest reason the Lions rank No. 4 in the NFL with 23 forced fumbles. They've recovered 11 of them, but typically a forced fumble is an impact play even if the offense recovers it because of additional lost yardage.
Suh, Williams and Fairley have combined for a modest five sacks. But the Lions have been one of the NFL's best short-yardage defenses this season, a tribute to their stout work inside. According to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents have converted a first down on 47.6 percent of plays on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go. That ranks No. 3 in the NFL. For comparison, the Green Bay Packers' defense has allowed opponents to convert 84.6 percent of those first-down attempts.
There have been some teams that have gotten great play from their defensive fronts this season, whether it's from a 4-3 or a 3-4. The Baltimore Ravens come to mind when you consider linebacker Terrell Suggs (13.5 sacks) along with defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and (former Lion) Cory Redding. So do the San Francisco 49ers, who have gotten All-Pro play from defensive end Justin Smith and 10.5 sacks from rookie linebacker Aldon Smith.
But generally speaking, even with Suh's statistical slide, both the numbers and the Lions' record suggest they deserve to be in that conversation as well.