Allen Park — Can Detroit Lions defensive tackles Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs shut down star Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson this Sunday?
It’s a preposterous question to ask — and yet, it’s not as much of a stretch as you might think.
The Lions for one half last Sunday reduced the Washington Commanders’ explosive receiving core into mere spectators. Detroit’s pass rush was getting home with relative ease, as rookie Aidan Hutchinson had three first-half sacks and Charles Harris added another with a strip-sack that resulted in a safety.
Commanders running back Antonio Gibson, meanwhile, never got going. He finished the day with 28 yards on 14 carries, which defensive line coach Todd Wash said Wednesday is the reason Detroit had an opportunity to pass rush effectively.
“When we get (non-mobile) quarterbacks and we get an opportunity to pin our ears back, I think we have the capabilities of getting after quarterbacks,” Wash said. “But we have to do a good job on first and second (down). We did that last week. … If you earn the right to rush, I think we will get there.
“But the thing we preach in there is we have to earn the right first, and stop the run.”
All of this, then, explains why McNeill and Buggs received game balls Sunday despite combining for just six tackles total. In the Lions’ new scheme, they’re not the ones tasked with making those stops. They’re tasked with tying up blockers.
“From the way we play things, the three-tech gets a lot of double teams,” McNeill said. “The last two games, I’ve just been eating up double teams, trying to do my thing … If eating up double teams is gonna allow other guys to eat, be able to do things, I’ll do that every play.”
Put simply: McNeill and Buggs are helping their team win by clearing opportunities for teammates, even if it means they’re not showing up much on the stat sheet.
“I think that’s a credit to those two big ol’ guys inside,” Wash said about his team’s success defending the run. “It’s nice seeing 320 (pounds) and 300, but we’ll keep Mac at a slim 350. It’s just really good to see those guys eat up gaps. They line up in two and play two other ones. Both of them got game balls this week.
“How they’re playing inside is going to be key, once again, for us this week. We had a real heart-to-heart about it, how they’ve got to play well for us to win inside.”
There it is, a plan as old as passing the football itself: Stop the running back; take away the ground game. Take away the ground game; fearlessly attack the quarterback. Fearlessly attack the quarterback; render him and his receivers useless.
It’s a simple strategy with complex minutiae that becomes further complicated when the opposition lines up so many players with gamebreaking talent, like Minnesota does. But the through line here needs no overcomplicating: To stop Jefferson, they must first stop Dalvin Cook — a massive undertaking in its own right.
“I think he’s one of the best backs in the league,” Wash said. “We believe they’re going to feed him this week and try to get him going. But with him, it looks like he could hit a hole and he might hit one on the opposite side (instead). He’s similar, we think, to Le’Veon Bell. … He never stops his feet, he runs hard, heck of a jump cut. So we’ve got to be disciplined with our gap accountability and stay in a little bit longer than we normally do, just to not allow a cutback.”
That’s where McNeill and Buggs step in.
“(McNeill) controls the inside. He really does. With the knockback and the stuff that we give — the short-yardage stops — all that stuff is really him and Buggs inside,” Wash said. “They’re just getting knockback, they’re taking up a lot of blocks and they’re not getting moved, which allows the linebackers — Rodriguez and you’ve got Alex — it allows them guys to play fast and get downhill.
“So it’s a lot of stuff that goes unseen, but as a coaching staff (McNeill and Buggs are) vital for our success.”
McNeill was drafted in 2021 with a third-round pick. There were high hopes that he would take a big step forward this season, and it appears he’s delivering on that so far. With Buggs, though, the Lions took a flyer on him heading into this season and weren’t quite sure what they were getting.
But they do know now: In Buggs and McNeill, the Lions have a pair of selfless defenders, plenty of room to grow, and whole lot of beef.
“Just as overall, tenacity, his mindset, his mentality on the field, he’s here, he wants to win just like the rest of us,” McNeill said of Buggs. “…And you know, he’s the older guy. He’s telling me things that I need to know on the field.
“He’s in one of those positions, too, that are kind of selfless, you know? He’s just taking up blocks, eating up blocks. Whatever comes to us, we make the plays that we need to make.”