Allen Park — Of all the steps the Lions have taken, this might be the most telling: Good enough isn’t necessarily good enough, not when better is possible.
That’s what they’re saying and that’s what we’re seeing, so far. The Lions are 1-0 after their 27-20 victory at Tampa Bay, but still moderately annoyed they let the Buccaneers hang around. Now they’re getting ready for a sold-out home opener against the 0-1 Chiefs, who were thoroughly awful in a 41-7 loss to the Bills.
The Lions’ evolution continues, and this week’s shocking revelation is, we actually have to ask if they might take an opponent lightly. Of course, they can’t. This is still the NFL, and the Chiefs still are close to the 10-6 team that made the playoffs last year. The Lions adamantly confirmed Wednesday it’d be ridiculous to overlook the Chiefs.
Slowly, it’s getting safer to trust the Lions. I mean, since starting 2-10 last season, the Lions have won five consecutive real games (nine straight if you count the exhibitions!). Frankly, they should be annoyed they didn’t beat the Buccaneers worse. But it’s encouraging to know the heart of the team, that menacing defensive line, could shut down Tampa Bay’s run game and harass quarterback Josh Freeman and not be overly pleased.
“I think we only got one sack, and that’s unacceptable,” defensive tackle Corey Williams said. “We didn’t get him on the ground nearly as many times as we’d planned. That ain’t like us. This week, we got another challenge to stop the run, but hopefully, we get the quarterback down.”
I consider this progress, because listening to the Lions defensive linemen, they aren’t kidding about their intentions. The Lions actually sacked Freeman twice, but Kyle Vanden Bosch was the only lineman to get one. The other was by new linebacker Stephen Tulloch, an excellent addition.
Ndamukong Suh just missed. Cliff Avril just missed. Coach Jim Schwartz had no major complaints about the line because Freeman often was on the run and the Buccaneers rushed for only 56 yards. That’s a good sign, with the Chiefs bringing what was the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack last season, led by Jamaal Charles.
Quarterback Matt Cassel doesn’t mind letting Charles and Thomas Jones do the work. But if you think the Lions are content with tidy low-sack success, you don’t fully understand their mentality.
“Is it enough? Not enough, but we’ll definitely take the win,” Suh said. “I think we affected the quarterback, we hit him, we were in his face. But ultimately, we want to get the quarterback down. Are we happy we still were effective? Yes. Are we satisfied? No.”
Line strives for more
Opponents will try all sorts of ways to slow the pass rush. One tactic seems simple to me: If you run the ball, you don’t have to throw it as much. The Chiefs can run the ball, and stopping that will be the main concern for the Lions.
The Lions deep defensive-line rotation — eight guys filling four spots — spawns great competition. Avril admits there’s a fierce debate to see who leads the team in sacks, and that’s fine with Schwartz, as long as everyone recognizes there are other ways to dominate.
“In the world of fantasy football, it’s no longer, did you win?” Schwartz said. “It’s, are your stats good enough? We played very well up front. As long as we’re effective, numbers really don’t matter. We can play better, but let’s not judge it strictly by sack numbers.”
Told that Suh wasn’t ecstatic with his one-tackle, no-sack performance, the coach shrugged.
“Like the rest of us, he has very high standards for himself,” Schwartz said. “He knows how hard sacks are to get. In this league, they don’t just give them to you for free.”
In this league, if you hit the quarterback, you get paid. Suh was the NFL defensive rookie of the year last season and led the Lions with 10 sacks. Avril had 8.5 and Lawrence Jackson six.
The Lions are intent on creating havoc, even without their top pick, injured tackle Nick Fairley. Still, sustaining success isn’t easy, especially with this winning thing all new to the Lions. They’re 8-point favorites Sunday, and near as anyone can tell, it’s their biggest spread since they were nine-point favorites in the 2000 finale against the Bears, a crushing 23-20 loss.
“To me, it’s not new,” said Suh, who won at Nebraska. “I expect every year to play in big games and play for big prizes, like the Super Bowl. I feel the mind-set is very reciprocal around this locker room. (The Chiefs) are gonna come in hungry.
“I don’t think you need to tell somebody not to take a team lightly. Anybody can win in this league.”
The Lions defied that notion for a long time. On the rare occasions they were just good enough to win, hey, it was good enough. Not now, not when they’re rising from sad sack to sack-happy, not when being really good actually is realistic.