Sometimes, seeing who is producing and who isn’t is as simple as looking at the stat sheet.
It’s clear Aidan Hutchinson had a good game Sunday against the Washington Commanders, when he set a Detroit Lions single-game rookie record and led the team with three sacks.
It’s obvious John Cominsky has been off to a torrid start after leading the team in quarterback pressures through two weeks — something the Lions will surely miss; coach Dan Campbell said he will be “down a while” after undergoing surgery on his right hand Tuesday.
Other times, statistics are misleading.
Take Alim McNeil, who has just three tackles through two games.
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“He controls the inside, he really does,” Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash said. “With the knockback and the stuff we get, the short yardage stuff, it is really him and (Isaiah) Buggs inside. They’re taking up a lot of blocks and not getting moved, which allows the linebackers — (Malcolm) Rodriguez and Alex (Anzalone) — to play fast and get down hill.
“A lot of the stuff goes unseen, but as a coaching staff, it’s vital for our success.”
Wash said McNeil and Buggs, who played a large part in shutting down the Commanders’ running game, both received game balls in the Lions’ Week 2 36-27 victory. Washington’s tailbacks combined for 17 rushes for 37 yards, one week after the Lions defense allowed 126 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries to Philadelphia’s backfield.
Repeating a Week 2 performance is the Lions’ main point of emphasis for Sunday, when they take on Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota Vikings.
“We do have a lot of respect for him, I think he’s one of the best backs in the league, we believe they’re going to feed him and try to get him going this week,” Wash said. “The thing with him is he can look like he’s going to hit a hole and then he hits one on the opposite side.
“He’s similar, we think to Le’Veon Bell, he might be in one spot but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stay there. He never stops his feet, he runs hard, heck of a jump cut, so we’ve got to be disciplined with our gap accountability.”
Fortunately, for the Lions, that’s an area they’ve been strong in, for the most part, through two games.
The defense has faced predominantly zone-blocked rushing schemes through two weeks, which they’ve been able to exploit not only because of their new downhill aggressive front — as opposed to last year’s “read-and-react” philosophy — but also because they have the right guys in the middle in terms of sheer size.
It wasn’t a coincidence the longest rush a Washington running back had was eight yards. Wash and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn have preached scheme and discipline.
“I think you’re seeing some knock-back which is a big important thing, especially in all the zone schemes we see,” Wash said. “We have to have penetration play-side and you have to stay flat for gap accountability backside.
“That (attack style) allows us to do it, but they’re also big guys, which helps. They’re both, Buggs and (Benito Jones), he played 20-some snaps when he was in there, we’re big, so it’s tough to move them around. Credit to those guys.”
The Vikings present a steep challenge in the passing game as well. Former Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, aside from his dud Monday night in Philadelphia, has played well for Minnesota with 127 touchdowns and 39 interceptions since joining the organization in 2018.
He ranked fourth in the NFL in QBR last season, finished ninth in touchdowns (33), yards (4,221) and average yards per pass (7.5) and had the second best interception rate in the NFL — only Aaron Rodgers was better.
Cousins is 7-2 vs. the Lions in nine matchups, with 19 touchdowns against two interceptions and a 119.9 passer rating.
His top target is third-year receiver Justin Jefferson, arguably already a top-five wideout. He lit up the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 for 184 yards and two scores.
But if the Lions are to get to 2-1, Wash believes it starts up front in the middle.
“We had a real heart-to-heart about it and about how they have to play well this week inside for us to win,” he said. “It’s a credit to those two big guys inside. It’s nice seeing 320 and, we’ll keep (McNeil) at a slim 350, but it’s just really good to see those guys eat up gaps. They line up in two and they play two other ones.
“How they’re playing inside is going to be key once again for us this week.”