LIONS DEFENSIVE coordinator Gunther Cunningham had a busy off-season, welcoming several free agents and rookies who will be expected to leave an immediate imprint on a group that has steadily improved since he came to Detroit with coach Jim Schwartz in 2009. The Lions ranked last in yards allowed that year, 21st in '10, then 13th last season. "I came here and the cupboard was bare," says Cunningham. "Today, there isn't a player on defense that was here when we all got here."
The offense got the headline free-agent pickup in running back Reggie Bush, but the Lions spent three of their top four draft picks on defense, nabbing a likely starting corner (second-rounder Darius Slay) and replacements for departed ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril (Ziggy Ansah, the fifth pick overall, and Devin Taylor, a fourth-rounder). Detroit further fortified its line by signing ends Jason Jones and Israel Idonije. That pair will shore up a middling run defense, as will Glover Quin, a solid run-stopper and one of the top safeties in free agency.
The straws that stir this drink, however, are inarguably Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, who were touted as the top interior defensive line pair entering the 2012 season before inconsistent play and injuries rendered them mortal. Only one defensive tackle had more combined hits, hurries and sacks last year than Suh's 54 (Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, who had 78), and no Detroit defensive lineman played more snaps, but Suh's ability to stop the run is still, at best, mediocre.
Fairley has improved in nearly every area, but he was the most penalized defensive lineman last season (eight offside calls alone), and he played only half the snaps in the 13 games for which he was healthy. Criticized for his lack of conditioning, Fairley took steps to remedy that, cutting close to 15 pounds off his 2012 playing weight of 320. He says the difference has been tremendous, and teammates have noticed as well. Linebacker Stephen Tulloch says he's had trouble reading offensive line keys in practice because Suh and Fairley are blowing up their offensive teammates before plays even start to develop.
"We're going to give guys trouble, man," says Fairley. "It's like pick your poison this year with our defensive line. You cannot come in and double-team Ndamukong, and you can't come in and double-team me."
Suh's pass-rushing skills will be even more valuable with the team's current makeup. Ansah was a gamble, to say the least, having picked up football just three years ago and starting only nine games at BYU, where he had just 4½ sacks. Jones, a backup at defensive tackle last season in Seattle, has some technique to relearn at end, and some rust to brush off: He injured his right knee in December and has been limited in camp. Idonije, 32, will spell both Ansah and Jones, but the bulk of his experience at end came when he was a bookend to Julius Peppers in Chicago, and his recent spike in pass-rushing performance (26½ sacks in the last five seasons) was likely a result of the attention Peppers demanded on the other side of the line.
That leaves Suh and Fairley as the rare pair of interior linemen in the NFL asked to anchor a pass rush. In a division with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, that's a daunting task. Rodgers pulled off narrow wins over Detroit in Weeks 11 and 14 last season despite Fairley's collecting three sacks in those games. The former Super Bowl MVP has been successful against Suh-Fairley fronts (he is 3--0 versus Detroit since 2011), but he sees trouble ahead. "The two guys starting to give us real issues are Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley," Rodgers told SI in August. "Really good players. Bright futures."
Short of being the best in the league, Suh and Fairley just need to be good enough to take some pressure off an improved-but-still-a-ways-to-go secondary. They alone will be the difference between Cunningham and Schwartz keeping their positions past 2013.
THE CASE FOR ...
Wide receiver Ryan Broyles
Nine months into rehab for a torn left ACL, Broyles still needs more time before he's fully recovered. But when that happens—he's not quite at full speed—look out. The rookie's greatest accomplishment came in Week 12 last year: six catches for 126 yards against the Texans, suggesting the Lions had finally found a complement to the defense-stretching Calvin Johnson. When Broyles went down a week later with the second ACL tear of his career, his stat sheet read, 10 games, three starts, 22 catches. The former Oklahoma Sooner, who tops the NCAA's alltime list in receptions (349), tore his other ACL in 2011, his last year in college. And after hurrying back onto the field to prove his worth as an NFL rookie, he isn't rushing this recovery, playing sparingly during the preseason. As he works his way back into full-time status the 25-year-old is compensating for a diminished burst off the line with his route-running, know-how and with sure hands. When he's full speed he'll benefit from the addition of RB Reggie Bush, a pass-catching threat who should open up intermediate lanes for TE Brandon Pettigrew and, eventually, Broyles.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
(N) NEW ACQUISITION
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTATED
DT NDAMUKONG SUH
GREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES