Strength-on-strength: Lions’ offensive line bracing for NFL’s best pass rush

Detroit News

Allen Park — It goes without saying the Lions will have to be better defensively if they want to get on track coming out of the team’s bye. But it also remains clear any hope for success is best placed on an offense that’s proved it can be one of the league’s most potent prior to unexpectedly being shut out by the New England Patriots the game before the week off.

Having showcased reliable explosiveness across the first five games, the Lions remain confident the stall out against the Patriots is an aberration. They’ll have a chance to show that’s the case this week against the Dallas Cowboys, who are leading the NFL in points allowed, led by a ferocious pass rush.

“That is the biggest challenge for us, will be that rush, and not just handling it, but as much as we can to stay away from it, which means you’ve got to be good on first and second down,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said.

The Cowboys are good on third down, allowing a conversion 35.2% of the time, but they’ve become downright dominant on third-and-long situations. On the 96 occasions an opponent has needed 6 or more yards to keep a drive alive, they’ve been successful just 23 times and have failed all 25 tries when needing 11 or more yards.

It’s in those situations Dallas can allow its defensive front to pin its ears back and gets after the quarterback, something it’s doing better than anyone else this season. The Cowboys lead the NFL in both sacks (24) and pressure rate, affecting the QB on 32.4% of his dropbacks, regardless of down and distance.

That attack is led by second-year superstar Micah Parsons, who leads the league with 31 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and has six sacks, which puts him on pace to top the 13 he racked up as a rookie.

“No. 11 (Parsons) might be the best defensive player in the NFL right now,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “It’s not just him though, all across the front.”

Parsons is complemented by DeMarcus Lawrence and Dante Fowler, two edge rushers with double-digit sack seasons on their resumes, as well as the emerging Dorance Armstrong, who has already matched his career high with five sacks this season. It’s a staggering amount of talent, producing at a high level, and it’s a big part of the reason the Cowboys are allowing 16.3 points per game. Only the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers have been better.

Now, there are ways for the Lions to counter a pass rush. As Campbell said, it starts with staying ahead of the chains and being effective on first and second down. But when the team needs to throw, ideally, quarterback Jared Goff isn’t holding the ball any longer than necessary.

“I think one of the things any offense would want to do to a defense like that is just keeping them off balance, showing them different looks, getting the ball out quick, not being stagnant, not doing the same thing,” wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “Running, throwing, quick plays, quick passes, play-action, whatever it is, just make sure you’re mixing it up because a defense like that can definitely hurt you really quick.”

That said, the Lions also have to be conscientious of bending their game plan too much in response to the Cowboys’ strength, because doing so would be going away from their own strength, the offensive line and the ability to protect Goff.

While it’s not the end-all, be-all of protection stats, the Lions have allowed a league-low seven sacks despite losing starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai before the start of the season, having left guard Jonah Jackson miss three weeks with a finger injury and having Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow battling through a turf toe-like injury that’s limited his effectiveness.

“We’ve got faith in those guys up front,” Goff said. “There have been years or teams that I’ve been on where there are injuries or some shaky positions that you want to help and you want to do some things, but we’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys. I’m sure we’ll have something for them, as far as how we want to protect and how we want to do it. But for the most part, we like our guys up front and know they’re going to be coming, but we like our matchups.”

Campbell reiterated those comments, noting the offense will aim to exploit areas of weakness they’ve identified through film study, while continuing to lean on the line’s blocking.

“I mean, we’ve got to be able to say out of third-and-7-pluses. That would be really big this game because they’re really good in that area,” Campbell said. “I don’t care how good your O-line is, that’s tough. That’s tough on them and that’s tough on the quarterback. But I think ultimately, if you’re holding my feet to the fire, we’ve got to do what we do well. And we’ve got to play to our strengths. Certainly, we’ve got to be able to run the ball. We’ve got to be able to run the football. It all starts there for us.”

The Lions will enter the game averaging 5.4 yards per carry, second to only the Ravens. They’ve averaged at least 4 yards per carry in all but one contest, their most recent game against the Patriots, where they finished at 3.7 yards per attempt. And there’s also a good chance they get dynamic dual-threat running back D’Andre Swift (ankle/shoulder) back for this contest after he missed the past two games.

All tallied, it amounts to a good test, a true best-on-best matchup that could not only dictate the outcome of this game, but set the tone for the rest of Detroit’s season coming out of the bye.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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