ALLEN PARK, Mich. – This was the traditional swirl of training camp's first practice: extra players running around trying to make the team, guys scrambling to drill stations on the fly and coaches barking for faster tempo. The chaos was ramped up by the tight schedule the NFL lockout caused and a move indoors due to heavy overnight rain.
In the middle of it all, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz couldn't help but take note of one prized group from what is often an anonymous position.
There's hype about the Lions for the first time in seemingly forever: local, national, external, internal. And as much as there are offensive weapons, it's right there, deep in the trenches on the other side of the ball, where Detroit is being built.
You couldn't miss big No. 90, Ndamukong Suh(notes), 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds of domination who a year ago rewrote the possibilities of a rookie season for an interior lineman (66 tackles, 10 sacks, an All-Pro nod). There next to him was No. 99 Corey Williams(notes), a 6-4, 320 pound space eater in his eighth season.
And nearby was the newest addition, No. 98, Nick Fairley(notes), 6-4, 300-plus who not 12 hours after signing his first contract was already causing everyone to drool at the possibilities. Fairley was a behemoth for Auburn a year ago (60 tackles, 11.5 sacks) and now he's the guy who will force defenses to be honest with Suh.
It's a unit that's huge, athletic and ferocious – sure to already be rattling the peace of mind of Aaron Rodgers(notes), Jay Cutler(notes) and the rest of the leagues quarterbacks. Throw in Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes) and (possibly) Cliff Avril(notes) on the outside and this is a unit right out of a quarterback's worst nightmare.
Schwartz, a former defensive coordinator at Tennessee, can only marvel at the potential. There's so much there, he knows to just keep it simple.
"Our playbook for defensive tackle is probably about half a page long," Schwartz said.
"It consists of two words: kick butt."
On Friday, in a purposefully humid Lions practice facility, it was the first day of what should be a violent future. D-line was already the team's strength before Fairley dropped into Detroit's lap with the 13th pick in the first round.
Suh was in New York at the NFL draft that day. He'd heard the buzz about Fairley the previous fall, heard about this big kid having a big year for Auburn. He caught the Tigers' game against Alabama when Fairley recorded four tackles, two sacks and recovered a fumble. He caught the national title game where Fairley spent half the game in Oregon's backfield, making five tackles, a sack and grabbing another fumble.
"Great athlete," Suh said he thought at the time. "Dominant."
And suddenly he was headed to Detroit where he'd be positioned often right next to Suh, making double-teaming both of them essentially impossible.
"I was elated," Suh said.
The possibilities were so tantalizing that Detroit didn't hesitate to double-down on defensive tackle despite Corey Williams being very solid and questions remaining at cornerback and linebacker. Nothing helps pass coverage like an overwhelming rush.
"We play 130 defensive tackle snaps in a game," Schwartz said after the draft. "So, if we're rotating three guys through, they're playing 45 snaps apiece. We can keep rolling waves and waves."
Fairley knew of Suh like everyone else. He watched him destroy offensive lines despite being a rookie. There's the freakish strength. There's the stunning foot speed. There's, perhaps most notably, the mean streak that saw Suh hit with vengeance and occasionally run afoul with the NFL disciplinary crew.
It's the same nastiness that Fairley showed at Auburn too, where he found his own controversy.
Now they're together: mean, malicious and unblockable. That's a lot of power for one defensive line.
"A lot," laughed Lions center Dominic Rialoa. "It's great for our defensive ends, [single blocking.] It's great for our linebackers. It's great for our cornerbacks."
Fairley hopes to duplicate Suh's rookie season. "Big shoes to follow behind," he said. "I think I can do it." Schwartz is high on Fairley but says that's too much to ask.
"I don't want to say [it was] unprecedented but we had to go back into the archives to find times that it [occurred]," he said of Suh. "Rookie defensive tackles that got double-digit sacks; rookie defensive tackles that were All-Pro. Obviously, it would be unrealistic to expect any rookie [to do that]."
Suh says last year was last year. He's focused on shoring up technique so he's even tougher. He doesn't look like he'll mind the chance to stay fresh (he took nearly 1,000 snaps) and perhaps have the focus on someone else. He was double-teamed from the first play of the preseason (he was "taking on 700 pounds of man every time," Schwartz said).
"Sophomore season is not [going to be] a slump for me," Suh assured.
For all the talk about a potential big season, Detroit is still a work in progress. Yes, there's potential on both sides of the ball and the four wins to end the season created momentum. The Lions also haven't reached the playoffs this century.
Here on Day 1 though, they trotted out something maybe no one else in the league can, a parade of young barbarians sure to make the Lions, if nothing else, one fear-inspiring date on the schedule.
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- Jim Schwartz