Alim McNeill has been the Lions’ best defensive tackle all season. The third-year DT was second on the team in sacks (5), tackles-for-loss (6), QB hits (9) and PFF defensive grade (88.1), trailing only Aidan Hutchinson.
Now, the Lions defense is faced with the reality of playing without McNeill for at least the next four weeks. Detroit placed No. 54 on injured reserve on Tuesday after he suffered a knee injury in the Week 13 win in New Orleans.
How can the Lions replace McNeill?
The short answer is, unfortunately, not very well. McNeill has been the only real interior defensive line threat to do anything in the opposing backfield all season. Guys who weigh over 300 pounds and can move like McNeill does with graceful power aren’t easy to find.
That person isn’t on the roster now. Benito Jones, Isaiah Buggs, Levi Onwuzurike and rookie Brodric Martin constitute the current defensive tackle room. Combine them all in 2023 and the DT room as it exists entering Week 14 against Chicago, and the production is dismal:
29 tackles, one sack, three TFLs
Digging deeper into the practice squad, the Lions have elevated Quinton Bohanna for the last three games. The behemoth Bohanna has six tackles and two TFLs. However, he’s out of elevations; the Lions will need to add him to the active 53-man roster in order for Bohanna to play again. That the team signed CB Kindle Vildor from the practice squad instead of Bohanna throws some cold water on that idea.
Detroit added veteran Tyson Alualu in the immediate aftermath of the McNeill injury. Alualu, 36, notched 18 tackles and a half-sack in his last 19 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the 2021-2022 seasons. In other words, “desperation, thy name is Alulalu”…
Then there are two players who are primarily defensive ends but do occasionally kick inside in packages: John Cominsky and Josh Paschal. Cominsky is listed at 285 pounds, Paschal at 274. Cominsky has played just 12 percent of his nearly 400 snaps inside the 5T alignment, with Paschal — who is closer to 265 than 274 at this point — at seven percent. They’re not full-time DTs, plain and simple.
What is the goal?
Using the pieces on the roster, the Lions will need to commit to a more concrete goal from the interior defensive line. Do they want to emphasize gap control and run defense, or will Aaron Glenn and his scheme instead want the focus to be on pressure generation? Because without McNeill’s impressive talents, they can’t reasonably be expected to do both even if that’s what Dan Campbell stated on Wednesday,
“I don’t think as a whole we’ll need to change what we do. We’ll still be able to function and live in the world we lived in,” Campbell said while acknowledging different situations might force some deviation.
There might be a clue in the right direction from the PFF season grades. Of Detroit’s defenders with at least 10 snaps in run defense, Jones, Onwuzurike and Bohanna are the bottom three. Jones, at a grade of 40.1, is one of the worst run defenders in the NFL amongst DTs. Using bulk on the inside isn’t really helping, especially when none of the big guys generate any semblance of a pass rush. Alualu could make a better impact in run defense, but he’s proven over a 13-year NFL career he’s not a pass-rush asset.
It would make more sense to try and be more of a gap-attack up front. Trying Cominsky more often in a 4i (inside shoulder of the OT) role to get increased disruption is worth a try.
Playing Martin and dealing with the third-round rookie’s growing pains could also help in this area. Martin has been a healthy scratch for all but one game as the Lions work on his self-admitted pad-level issues. He’s almost certainly going to lose some reps, but having the potential disruption he showed in preseason and training camp could prove beneficial in the long term. At worst, the Lions will know if Martin can be expected to handle a bigger role in 2024 — an important revelation for a player drafted as a developmental project.
Then there’s Buggs. The veteran has not worked his way out of the coaching doghouse, where he landed after not impressing Campbell, Glenn, et al with his offseason work. Buggs is in a weird limbo status. He’s deemed too valuable to cut, but not trustworthy enough to play even in desperate times. Martin’s injury could be the catalyst to force the Lions’ hand in making a more definitive decision with Buggs, who did not play very well when given the opportunity this year, either. Perhaps being reunited with ex-Steelers linemate Alualu will help?
There’s a lot of talk about Ndamukong Suh. Until he actually signs in Detroit, consider him a theory and not at all a likely reality.