Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Why it’s not all about sacks for Lions’ Dan Campbell when it comes to success of Aidan Hutchinson, defense

The approach to measuring how successful an NFL team’s pass rush is isn’t an exact science. So, what’s more important: sack numbers or quarterback pressure numbers?

For the Detroit Lions, the 2023 NFC runner-up, the answer is multi-faceted. The Lions’ 41 sacks as a defense this past season ranked 23rd despite having a top-five quarterback pressure total (274, the third-most in the NFL) and rate (41.6%, the fourth-best in the NFL). The issue was converting their consistent quarterback pressure into sacks, which they did at a rate of 6.5%, the 11th-lowest in the NFL. 

Detroit head coach Dan Campbell said he would “absolutely” prefer to have better sack figures than pressure figures in a vacuum, but he also explained the nuance about sacks versus quarterback pressure rate in depth this week. 

 Detroit head coach Dan Campbell said he would “absolutely” prefer to have better sack figures than pressure figures in a vacuum, but he also explained the nuance about sacks versus quarterback pressure rate in depth this week. 

“Sacks aren’t that big of a deal as long you’re getting the pressures,” Campbell said at his press conference on Thursday. “As long as you’re getting pressures, and those pressures show up and affect the quarterback negatively, you know? Now would you rather have sacks? Absolutely, I would rather have sacks. The loss of yardage, all of those things, but the pressures … a pressure that affects the quarterback. … We watched a couple clips this morning in front of the team. Quarterback is wanting to step up. He can’t step up, the throw is high. He’s flipping to his right, and he can’t get his hips around. Throw a pick. These things that end up in negative plays as incomplete, as turnovers, whatever, I’ll take those all day long.”

The problem for the Lions in 2023, despite all their success, is their consistent pressure didn’t always result in generating a negative play for opposing offenses. Detroit was incrementally ahead of the Washington Commanders — a defense that ranked last in the league in several categories — for the worst mark in defensive expected points per added per play when it got pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Lions allowed quarterbacks to have a 78.2 passer rating when they pressured them in 2023, the seventh-highest rate allowed in the league. 

How is this possible? Well, Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, didn’t receive much support from his defensive teammates a year ago. Hutchinson’s 101 quarterback pressures in 2023 ranked second in the entire NFL behind only Dallas Cowboys three-time All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons‘ 103, but Parsons turned a few more of those pressures into sacks (14.0 compared to 11.5). Parsons’ league-leading 21.8% quarterback pressure rate was also a tick higher than Hutchinson’s 17.4% rate in 2023, which ranked as the 10th-best in the NFL. Still, Hutchinson recorded a high-level of play in 2023, profiling as one of the league’s best at harassing quarterbacks. 

“Look Hutch is going to continue to continue to improve,” Campbell said. “Whether those come in sacks or not, I already know he is going to be better. You know what I mean? That’s just the way he is. That’s the way it works. It’s like Saint [2023 first-team All-Pro WR Amon-Ra St. Brown]: you’re going to be able to count on the production he [Hutchinson] is going to bring.”

The Lions’ overarching failure to capitalize on their top-five quarterback pressure is why general manager Brad Holmes overhauled his squad’s secondary, primarily through the draft, and the defensive line in free agency. Detroit used its first two 2024 draft choices on cornerbacks: Alabama 2023 first-team All-American cornerback Terrion Arnold, who co-led the SEC with five interceptions last season, with the 24th overall pick, and Missouri cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr., who didn’t allow a touchdown in his 1,017 career coverage snaps, with the 61st overall pick. Super Bowl champion cornerback Carlton Davis, a six-year starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was acquired via trade at the cost of a 2024 third-round pick. 

Up front, Detroit signed veteran defensive tackle D.J. Reader to a two-year, $22 million deal and 2018 first-round edge rusher Marcus Davenport to a one-year, $6.5 million contract this offseason.

“That will always help,” Campbell said of Hutchinson needing to be aided by the presence of another quality edge rusher. “It helps if you’ve got somebody else that can kind of push them [the quarterback], to you. At times you can kind of hide in a little window and it could be half a yard the other way, and that’s all it takes for him [Hutchinson] to miss [making contact with the quarterback] by an arm length. That helps, it certainly does. But you can also get that from a three-technique on the other side. That could be Mac [DT Alim McNeill] that’s opposite of him [Hutchinson] on some things. Yeah, somebody on the other side is always going to help.”

McNeill ranked second on the Lions in both quarterback pressures (34) and sacks (5.0) last season, which probably played a role in Holmes making the moves to sign both Reader and Davenport in March. Following the Lions’ defensive personnel overhaul this offseason, Detroit is banking on Hutchinson to make another leap, perhaps to Parsons-level production, thanks to he and his teammates making their quarterback pressure matter.

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