Lions showing progress thanks to Stafford, growth of defense


The third week of preseason represents a chance for starters play more. After watching nine games Saturday night, here are my observations:

Matthew Stafford is lighting it up. He remains on fire after his impressive showing against the Patriots. He connected on 12 of 14 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, while guiding the Lions to 17 points on four possessions.

Stafford was flawless in his execution of the Lions' up-tempo offense, which featured some no-huddle calls. He delivered the ball on time, showing the arm strength, accuracy and awareness expected of a franchise quarterback. He distributed the ball to six different receivers on a variety of throws and was unfazed by New England's mixture of pressure and coverage.

Stafford's refusal to flinch under pressure shows he enters the season not thinking about the host of injuries that have plagued his brief career.

Jim Schwartz has brought the D. The Lions' defense looks vastly improved thanks to a deep and talented defensive line, which gives the Lions the ability to disrupt offenses with a mix of conventional four-man rushes and an assortment of five- and six-man blitzes.

Ndamukong Suh is the key due to his ability to dominate double teams. By wreaking havoc on the interior, he creates isolated matchups for his counterparts. To take advantage of what Suh brings, the Lions use an assortment of stunts to free one of the rushers on a pick or rub. With each of the defenders capable of winning one-on-one opportunities, the selective usage of games along the line can disrupt the timing and precision of the opponent's passing game.

When the Lions bring pressure with one of their swift linebackers -- Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy -- the tactic often results in a defensive end getting free. Cliff Avril (two sacks) was the biggest beneficiary against the Patriots, but several others landed shots on Tom Brady thanks to the aggressive approach. Unable to find a consistent rhythm, Brady completed only 12 of 22 passes for 145 yards with one touchdown and an interception and only scored 10 points with the first unit on the field.

The Lions did all this with Nick Fairley and Kyle Vanden Bosch out, so this provides a glimpse at the immense potential in Detroit.

The Broncos might have one of the league's best pass rushes. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combined for 3.5 sacks against the Seahawks. Miller was particularly impressive. His first-step quickness overwhelmed blockers, and his ability to bend coming off the corner while accelerating is rare for a rookie. With the Broncos using Miller on blitzes from his outside linebacker spot and as an edge player in sub-packages, he's a threat to produce game-changing plays at any time.

Dumervil was equally impressive. His combination of balance, body control and quickness give him an advantage over edge blockers due to his size. At 5-foot-11, 260 pounds, he's able to slip under their hands. Although he occasionally gets washed past the quarterback, his ability to consistently create pressure alters the rhythm of the passing game.

For a defense that produced few big plays a season ago, Miller and Dumervil should make a big difference.

Don't read too much into the Falcons' radical offensive approach. Although Matt Ryan threw 42 times in the first half against the Steelers, the Falcons are not moving away from the power running game that has helped them make two postseason appearances over the past three seasons. The pass-heavy attack appeared to be an attempt to prepare for contests against future opponents -- Green Bay, Houston and Dallas -- that employ similar zone-blitz schemes.

The Falcons used a variety of open formations out of their "11" personnel package (one back, one tight end and three receivers) to spread the field and make it easy for Ryan to identify potential rushers. The team also mixed in some stacked receiver alignments, bunch formations and empty sets to test the coverage. The approach was heightened with quick rhythm throws and short crossing routes to give Ryan high percentage opportunities. The Falcons also used the no-huddle to keep the Steelers from making wholesale substitutions to match up with their personnel.

While Ryan's numbers weren't great (22 of 42 for 220 yards with one touchdown and an interception), the value of getting work against a complex 3-4 zone-blitz scheme could pay dividends down the road.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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