The Giants have earned two Super Bowl wins in recent years in large part due to their great pass rush. It’s a copycat league, and teams like the Detroit Lions have been following suit, acquiring as many quality pass rushers as possible.
The starting defensive ends in Detroit, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, recorded 20 sacks last year. When one of them needed to rest, last year’s Lions Secret Superstar, Lawrence Jackson, came in and the quality of play remained high. Throw in Ndamukong Suh and his +9.3 pass rush rating and 2011’s first-round pick Nick Fairley as the interior linemen, and you have a pass rush that will keep opposing quarterbacks up at night.
With so many star players, it might surprise you to find the one with the highest overall rating on the Lions’ defensive line in 2011 was Willie Young. Usually, players drafted in the seventh round don’t make much of a name for themselves–and with how little Young gets to play it will be hard for him to–but when he is on the field, you will likely catch him making plays.
Struggling for Playing Time
Young was drafted with the 213th overall pick in the 2010 draft from North Carolina State, where he saw significant time all four years and recorded 46 tackles for losses with 20 sacks. The problem was the Lions already had Cliff Avril and Turk McBride on the roster from the previous year. Kyle Vanden Bosch was added earlier in the offseason to be reunited with Jim Schwartz.
During training camp, the Seahawks were shopping Lawrence Jackson after two years of not living up to his first round hype. The Lions traded a 2011 sixth-rounder for him. You could make a case for Young being the sixth defensive end option on the depth chart because the Lions moved Andre Fluellen from defensive tackle to defensive end for 62 snaps. With so many players ahead of him, it’s a little surprising Young made the active roster. He was kept inactive for all but two games in his rookie season; seeing a total of seven defensive snaps, most of which were near the very end of the last game of the season.
Breakout Pass Rusher
The Lions decided not to re-sign McBride last offseason and he went to the New Orleans Saints. This bumped Young up to the fourth defensive end spot, a place on the game day roster, and playing time. During the 2011 season, Young’s share of the defensive snaps fluctuated between 14% and 28%, depending on how often the other team was throwing the ball. The two exceptions came in Weeks 8 and 16 in blowout wins against the Broncos and Chargers where Young saw more playing time than usual in the fourth quarter.
Of all 4-3 defensive ends with at least 100 pass rushes, Young had the fourth-highest Pass Rushing Productivity rating (13.4, behind just Trent Cole, Jason Babin, and Chris Long) bringing pressure on one of every six plays. While it’s impressive how often he gets to the quarterback, it is how he does it and when he has that has made him especially interesting. He lined up on the left side for over 86% of his pass rushes, going up against the opposing right tackle. He has shown both the strength to engage the right tackle and push him right back into the quarterback and the speed to just run around the blocker.
Either one of these moves gets to the quarterback quickly. This is easiest to see in his two games against the Bears. In those games he recorded a sack and five hurries. On five of those six plays, the pressure came within two seconds of the snap. For another example, in the Week 6 game against the 49ers it only took him a second and a half to get to Alex Smith. Smith saw this, and threw the ball to avoid the sack, but Young batted it away.
Not only has Young shown he can get to the quarterback quickly, but also when the team needs him to make plays the most. In Week 4, the Lions played the Cowboys, and one of our Rookie of the Year candidates Tyron Smith was shutting down Cliff Avril all day. On 40 pass rushes Avril couldn’t record a single pressure. When the closing minute of the game was at hand–and Dallas needed a touchdown for the win, but didn’t have any time outs left–it was Young on the field at left defensive end. He drove Smith back, forced him to the ground, and recorded the sack. The Cowboys then had 20 yards to go for a first down and a ticking clock. Needless to say, the Lions won.
A team doesn’t need a big play anytime more than in the playoffs, and that’s where Young had his biggest. Against the Saints with the game tied 7-7, it was Young who got to Brees and forced a fumble.
Hints of a Complete Game
When it comes to pass rushing, Young has shown he can do it all in just one year as a part time player. While it’s too early to call him an All-Pro because of the small sample size, it is certainly enough to want to see what more he can do. Against the run, though, the sample shrinks further; Young played just 101 run defense snaps in 2011, so he hasn’t gotten much of a chance to show what he can do. In that time he has notched just one tackle for a loss with three more for just short gains. He’s also had a number of other plays where he causes problems for the offensive line or tight end without being the player that ultimately makes the tackle. His biggest problems in the run game have come when a tight end or fullback blocks him instead of the right tackle. So far, the positive plays he has made have outweighed the negative.
Right now, Young remains the fourth defensive end on the depth chart. Cliff Avril has yet to sign his franchise tender, and the two sides haven’t come close to working out a long-term deal yet. After this year Lawrence Jackson is a free agent, and at Kyle Vanden Bosch’s age and salary, he might not live out the last year of his contract. While Young is stuck at No. 4 for now, it shouldn’t be too much longer before he gets his time to shine. Until then, the Lions should be very happy with the depth they have at the position.