Sunday, May 01, 2011

Lions Get it Right with Drafting of DT Fairley

It’s one of the most indelible images in Detroit Lions history.

You’ve likely seen the photograph, in black and white. An angry, vengeful-minded group of Lions holding a defensive meeting on the Tiger Stadium turf, with Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr being used as the table.

Some of the greatest defenders in Lions history are in the photograph.

Joe Schmidt. Darris McCord. Alex Karras. Roger Brown. Sam Williams. Only Starr’s helmet and a portion of his jersey are visible.

The photo was snapped on Thanksgiving Day, 1962. The Lions were in a foul mood on a fowl day, still grumpy over losing a game to the Packers earlier in the season on a muddy field in Green Bay.

The ’62 Lions were one of the best teams the NFL ever saw that didn’t qualify for the post-season. They finished 11-3. Trouble was, the Packers were 13-1. There were no wild cards back then; you either won your division or you didn’t.

The Lions coughed up the game to the Packers in October, which would eventually cost them the West Division title, and they, to a man, vowed that the Pack would pay on Thanksgiving Day.

Did they ever.

All afternoon the Lions defensive front spent a considerable amount of time in the Packers backfield. Starr was sacked 11 times, his normally impenetrable offensive line reduced to mush.

It was the defining moment for a Lions front four that, in the early-1960s, was as good as any. Ever.

Time was when the defensive front for the Lions was traditionally a strength. Even when the offense was plodding, the Lions defense, anchored by the big uglies in the trenches and flanked by cornerbacks Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau, was no picnic for the opposition.

There was a drought in that area until the early-1980s.

They called themselves the “Silver Rush.” They were Doug English and Al “Bubba” Baker and Dave Pureifory and Bill Gay. They were veterans acquired from other teams like Curley Culp and Mike Fanning and Joe Ehrmann. And they caused sleepless nights for offensive coordinators.

What’s happening now with the Lions is warming the cockles of my heart.

Right now, for the first time in close to 30 years, the Lions are creating a defensive line corps that is nasty. And for once, when it comes to the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver, I mean that in a good way.

The first-round draft pick of 2011, one Nick Fairley from Auburn, is a defensive tackle. A very GOOD defensive tackle—perhaps the best available off the board. That he fell to the Lions at pick No. 13 was both fortuitous and unexpected—and with the Lions, we’ve gotten plenty of the latter but not so much of the former.

Fairley, playing alongside Ndamukong Suh in the middle of the Lions defensive front, with ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril—and with veteran tackle Corey Williams being shuttled in throughout the game—means one glorious thing.

The Lions aren’t going to be anyone’s punching bag anymore.

No more should there be back-breaking, clock-chewing drives against the Lions late in games when the football is needed back into their possession. The depth the Lions have up front is ridiculous.

I can hear you now: Where’s the “shutdown cornerback?” Where’s the linebacker? Where’s the offensive lineman?

A front four that can potentially pressure the quarterback like the Lions have can make me a decent cornerback, and I run a 7.5 40-yard dash, downhill, and have the cover ability of white paint over a black wall.

Besides, there’s the later rounds on Saturday, and free agency—and trades. Lions GM Martin Mayhew likes trades. He’s already made plenty of his colleagues look silly as he’s fleeced them.

The Lions drafted to a strength, and that’s just wonderful. Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz are big on winning the majority of the battles that take place a yard or two on either side of the line of scrimmage, which occur some 120 times per game.

The drafting of Fairley falls right in line with the team’s philosophy. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is going to be a kid in a candy shop with his unit of d-linemen, rotating them in and out, keeping them fresh for the later stages of football games.

Oh, and those maddening double teams of Suh, which occurred on just about every play last year? Gone! Fairley is an excellent pass rusher in his own right, for a guy who plays between the guards. You gonna leave him to double team Suh? Go ahead—I dare ya.

Fairley was introduced to the Detroit media on Friday, another big man wearing a suit that most of us would use as a tent.

The subject of quarterbacks was brought up. The questioner referenced Suh’s comment last year at this time that he doesn’t like quarterbacks.

Fairley shrugged his granite shoulders and said, matter-of-factly, “I don’t like ‘em either.”

It should be noted that Karras, perhaps the greatest defensive tackle not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was notorious for his dislike of the game’s signal-callers, too.

Suh is a wonderful young man with a bright smile and who has a chance to be the NFL’s next Michael Strahan—a defensive lineman with a personality as large as his frame and who will appear on your television set more often as a celebrated pitchman and league ambassador.

Fairley might not be a Suh type off the field. My first impression of him is that he is more withdrawn, more subdued. Less gregarious. But he shares a distaste for quarterbacks. Even his college teammate, Cam Newton, didn’t escape Fairley’s wrath on Friday.

“I don’t like him, either,” Fairley said of Newton, drafted first overall by Carolina. “Not anymore.”

The Lions’ first two, first-round draft picks in the Martin Mayhew era have been relative no-brainers. There wasn’t a lot of thought process needed to point to Matthew Stafford (2009) and Suh (2010) and say, “I’ll take HIM.”

This year was different. The Lions drafted 13th overall, not first or second. This first-round pick took some thought, took some soul-searching. It took some self-assessment of where Mayhew and Schwartz want to take their football team.

They chose the front four. They chose to make the rich, richer.

Nicely played, gentlemen.

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