By: Will Burchfield
Haloti Ngata is confident the Lions’ defensive line will be able to generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.
Where that confidence stems from might surprise you.
“The guys we brought in in free agency. Akeem Spence and (Jordan) Hill are frickin’ beasts, man, in creating pressure and stopping the run,” Ngata said on Monday after practice.
Both Spence and Hill are five-year NFL vets. They weren’t highly-pursued free agents, not to the degree of Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang, nor were they hailed as immediate difference-makers. But, together, they give the interior of the Lions’ defensive line a different look behind starters Ngata and A’Shawn Robinson.
“With Spence and J-Hill being shifty, smaller guys and myself and A.R. being bigger, heavier guys, it changes it up for offensive linemen. I think we’re gonna have a great rotation this year,” said Ngata. “I’m excited.”
Ngata was speaking solely in regard to the defensive-tackle rotation, though he acknowledged the team has some promising pass rushers as well — Kerry Hyder and Ziggy Ansah were the first two he mentioned. The entire group has much to prove after finishing second to last in the NFL last year with 26 sacks.
Of those 26 sacks, the defensive tackles accounted for just 4.5.
GM Bob Quinn fortified that group through the draft and free agency. Thus far, it’s Spence and Hill who have stood out the most among the myriad additions.
“I think both guys, first of all, have been showing up,” said Jim Caldwell. “Pass rushing and obviously stopping the run. They both have quickness as well as explosiveness, and they stay low to the ground so their pad level is good.”
Spence spent his first four years in the league with the Buccaneers. His best season came in 2014 when he produced 37 tackles and three sacks. Hill broke in with the Seahawks and was making a name for himself before injuries slowed his success. He had 5.5 sacks in 2014.
“I’ve seen it before with J-Hill and Akeem,” Ngata said. “J-Hill, two years ago he was amazing. Got hurt last year so he wasn’t really on the radar of anybody. And Akeem has always been a big, shifty guy. I’ve known these guys. You watch the league every now and then, guys you kind of see on film, and Akeem and J-Hill were always one of those guys.”
On top of their physical attributes, Ngata has been seriously impressed with the rate at which Spence and Hill have assimilated within the team’s defense.
“They’ve picked it up so fast. I think they just kind of bought in faster. They bought into the system, they bought into what we wanted them to do and they just took off with it,” said Ngata. “Even my first year here it took me a little while to get it, so to see them get it so fast is just amazing.”
Spence and Hill have plenty left to prove. Jobs aren’t won on the practice field. What’s more, the success of the Lions’ defensive line rests more squarely on the shoulders of four returners: Ngata, Robinson, Ansah and Hyder.
Still, that unit appears to have something it lacked last year in two potentially savvy additions.
“Right now,” said Caldwell, “they look like they’re supposed to – disruptive and having fun doing it.”