Jackson, Young provide key depth along the defensive line

Posted May 8, 2012

When talking about his defensive line, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is careful to never categorize any one player as a starter or a backup. The Lions rotate players in so frequently it’s hard to call anyone a true starter.

At the defensive end position, the Lions have Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young, allowing the Lions to throw wave after wave of fresh pass rushers at opposing quarterbacks, along with Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch.That steady rotation of rushers allowed the Lions to record 85 sacks over the last two seasons, which ranks in the NFL's top 10.

Jackson compares his role to that of a sixth-man in basketball.

“I think looking at the NBA playoffs shines a greater light on it,” he said. “You have a guy like James Harden (guard for Oklahoma City Thunder), he’s a starter, but he’s the sixth man and comes in and may have 30 minutes of game time and Kevin Durant may have 35 (minutes) and Harden has five or six points less than Durant. “This guy off the bench provides a huge boost to the team and kind of alleviates pressure from the guys.”

It’s a good analogy by Jackson. Both he and Young allow the Lions to stay fresh upfront and wear down offensive tackles in the fourth quarter.

“It’s extremely important,” Young said about having great depth along the defensive line. “It allows guys to have fresh legs upfront. It’s always a great feeling to be able to go into a game with fresh legs.“For anyone to go in at anytime in any combination and not see a drop-off in performance upfront, it’s so important. You almost can’t even tell when the starters are in or the starters are out.”

Both Jackson and Young are entering their third seasons with the Lions and within this scheme. The team traded for Jackson in 2010 after he spent his first two seasons with the Seahawks. Young was drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

“Normally, it’s kind of an ego blow to not be a starter,” Jackson said. “But (we) play the same amount of reps and the fresher you are the more productive you can be. “I think it helps the most in the fourth quarter when this guy goes in and is wearing a guy out and the next guy comes in and he’s wearing him out and now (the opposing player is) seeing two different things. I feel like it’s a huge advantage for us.”

Avril, who’s been a “starter” since 2009, has yet to sign his franchise tender and is not participating in the team’s offseason training program. That’s given Jackson and Young more reps.

Avril isn’t expected to participate in any organized team activity practices or the June mini-camp without a long-term contract in hand, either. Jackson and Young view that as an opportunity to get more exposure.

“It’s a huge opportunity just with the reps,” Jackson said. “There’s a higher level of competition going with the first group. I think allowing the coaches to see the player in that role vs. a starter is big. It’s one of those things where you might not be able to show everything you can do against the second group or it might get devalued. “Anytime you have an opportunity to run with the first group at practice it’s a huge opportunity and the more time they can see you out there with that first group the more they can feel confortable with this guy or that guy.”

Jackson has 10.5 sacks in 22 games over the last two seasons. Young made three impactful sacks last year, none bigger than the one at Dallas Week 4. With 35 seconds left in the game Young got to Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, helping preserve a Lions come-from-behind victory.

The Lions felt the absence of Jackson for five games when he was dealing with a thigh bruise last season and when Young was hampered by a high ankle sprain for nearly a month.

The Lions employ one of the leagues best defensive lines, but that strength isn’t just a product of the players who are announced at the beginning of the game. It's also because players like Jackson and Young can come in and there’s no drop-off in production. That’s the real measurement when coaches talk about depth.