Tom Brady won’t forget the first time he faced the Detroit Lions’ defensive front. He just might forget the details.
“I was in mop-up duty. I don’t remember much from that game,” Brady said in his press conference on Wednesday. “I’ll have to go back and watch the film.”
It was Nov. 23, 2000, and the New England Patriots were on the wrong end of a 25-point difference late in the fourth quarter. It was then that the rookie sixth-round pick entered for incumbent starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe. And it was then that he went 1-of-3 passing with a six-yard completion to tight end Rod Rutledge.
That Sunday was regular-season game No. 1 for Brady. This Sunday will be No. 204. But while the date remains the same, little else has. The Lions’ defense, and the front line at the root of it, will get the chance to attest come 1 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium.
Detroit has allowed a league-low 2,903 yards through 10 games this season, including a fifth-ranked 221.5 passing yards per game and a first-ranked 68.8 rushing yards per game. The unit has allowed an average of 15.6 points per game, with no more than 23 points arriving in one game. And from the likes of Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo and Darius Slay on the back end, to Deandre Levy on tight ends, to all the moving parts on the front end, the group has proven its worth.
They’ve got 26 sacks, 12 interceptions and a 35.2 third-down percentage to show for it.
New England’s offense will be put to the test on Sunday. The answers to the test begin between the lines, however, and that just so happens to be where 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh resides.
“He’s a phenomenal player, and we’ve got to think about him on every play,” Brady said. “He can ruin a game. He’s a big, physical presence and really sets a tone for that defense. We’ve got to think about him on every play.”
A three-time NFL All-Pro, Suh has registered 28 tackles and 4.5 sacks thus far in 2014, and he’s done so while commanding combination blocks and double teams on close to an every-down basis. Even so, sending two on Suh doesn’t always add up.
“As much as you try to double anybody, say Suh, sometimes you can’t because the guy you would have doubling him has to block a blitzer in pass protection,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained in his press conference earlier this week.
Suh’s force may not be seen in his statistics because of the way he’s countered, but it is seen in the bull rush he generates at the point of attack, the chase he gives running backs both upfield and in the flats, and the disruption he creates just by putting his hand on the turf and being there.
That disruption, even from his alignment as a three-technique or one-technique before the snap, has broadened opportunities for his teammates after it.
Though Nick Fairley – Suh’s next-door neighbor on the inside – has been sidelined with a knee injury, the likes of 10-year veteran C.J. Mosely and left defensive end Jason Jones have been able to fill the lanes and enact pressure on opposing quarterbacks and backfields. They’ve been able to manufacture matchups up and down the line.
There’s reason to be mindful of that reality. After a week in which pass protection, angle and pull blocks paved the Patriots to victory, how rookie center Bryan Stork, guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell direct the inside traffic from Suh and Co. will hold the keys this week. The utilization of fullback James Develin, halfbacks Shane Vereen, Jonas Gray and the re-signed LeGarrette Blount will loom large as well.
However the running game is deployed, blitz pickup, outlet routes and off-tackle runs are likely to be at the root of it. But working away from the interior of Detroit’s defensive line only gets an offense so far.
Ezekiel Ansah’s presence has had ripple effect on the outside as well.
Following in the footsteps of his eight-sack rookie season, the 6-foot-6, 278-pound fifth-overall pick in the 2013 draft has been able to carve the edge in year two. Ansah has 35 tackles, 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles thus far into 2014, and the Brigham Young standout’s combination of speed, length strength off the right side is an integral reason why.
When he throws a breaking ball, left tackles have a hard time seeing the spin of the seams. Ansah may be a rare athlete, but he’s also a multifaceted one. New England’s Nate Solder, who has struggled against speed in the past, will vie to control on the blindside against him. Yet there’s also George Johnson, who has 23 tackles four sacks this season, for fourth-year Patriots starter to account for.
Solder has been able to stabilize of late. The rest of the line, including right bookend Sebastian Vollmer, have followed suit with time and continuity. The nucleus has netted 16 sacks this year, yet only two in the last three games; a middle-of-the-road 1,157 rushing yards, yet 246 in the last game.
The Lions may be a different animal. But those are trends that the Patriots will look to continue.