by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Chris Spielman dropped into his stance, set his jaw and snorted. He waited for the snap. Then he sprang forward — and threw a block.

A block?

For the running Barry Sanders?

Chris Spielman? Fullback?

This was all you needed to know about the stunning event called the season opener at the Silverdome on Sunday: the Lions’ defense was everywhere — including its own backfield.

“Aw, you just get out there and hit somebody,” Spielman, normally a linebacker, said of his brief stint on offense late in the Lions’ 30-13 crushing of Atlanta. “I can do that. I can hit anyone they want me to hit.”

Who’s left? They’re all dead, aren’t they? This was the game that blue-collar, beer-toasting fans have been waiting for around here since, what, the dawn of time? Lions on the quarterback. Lions on the running back. Lions charging into the opposing backfield as if coming through an open door.

Six sacks? SIX SACKS?

The last time the words “six,” “sacks” and “Lions” were used in the same sentence, that sentence was: “The sad sacks on the Lions were deep-sixed again
. . .”

“That’s probably the most defensive pressure I’ve encountered since I’ve been here,” Chris Miller, the bruised Atlanta quarterback, lamented after the defeat. “Their pass rush took away almost everything.”

The Lions’ pass rush?

Did I go to the right stadium?

Lighter, faster, better

Well, the Lions can Pat themselves on the back for this one. As in Pat Swilling, the new, pass-rushing specialist who carries such a reputation in the NFL, you can hear the opposing team’s teeth chattering from up in the stands. With Swilling charging from the outside, the Falcons curled in to protect themselves and — boom! They got crushed by Dan Owens and Robert Porcher. And if they stepped out to avoid the inside charge of those guys — boom! They ran into the crunching arms of Swilling and George Jamison.

You know what they say in football: hit ’em high, hit ’em low. Hit ’em early, hit ’em often. Hit ’em where they ain’t. No, wait, that’s baseball.

“Watching the defense play today was a thing of beauty,” admitted Rodney Peete, the Lions’ quarterback. And he’s not supposed to be watching!

But who can blame him? The Silver Storm — when a defense is good, you have to give it a nickname, so I just made this one up — was arresting. In the first half, The Blue Blitzkrieg — like that one better? — gave up just 12 yards rushing, had four sacks, forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass.

Best of all, when it counted, the Motown Menace — how’s that? — surrendered only two field goals, before a meaningless touchdown with six minutes left in garbage time.

“That’s the best defensive effort I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said coach Wayne Fontes, who has seen his share of the other kind, believe me.

New? Improved? Here were several things Sunday that haven’t been witnessed at the Silverdome in some time:

1) A defensive line of six linebackers, all standing up, ready to charge.

2) Spielman staying in on all downs.

3) No Jerry Ball, and his Body By Nestles.

“If you notice, we’re all a lot lighter now,” said Owens, who had his best game ever as a Lion. “Instead of a 285-pound guy trying to blitz in from outside, we have a 245-pound guy, and even the guys up front are lighter, so we’re faster.”

This, you may recall, is one way the Dallas Cowboys built the best defense in the NFL and won the Super Bowl. Speed over size.

So the Lions, if nothing else, are hip.

New approach from an old hand

All this from new defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, who was supposedly too old to be hip, or even effective. The game had passed him by, they said, he’d been out of it for several years.

Obviously, he was busy devising schemes.

“Hank has known more football then I forgot,” Spielman said, fumbling with the words. “I mean, he’s forgotten more football than I’ve known. Than I know. Then he . . . aw, you know the cliche I’m trying to say.”

I know it, I just haven’t had to use it much with the Lions. But the evidence was convincing. Not once on Sunday did you see that terribly common sight from years past, where the opposing quarterback stands back in the pocket, untouched, humming a tune, deciding what restaurant to visit tonight before picking out a receiver.

Nu-uh. Even when Miller completed his passes, he was moving or under attack. Atlanta was completely befuddled.

“Could you see their confusion?” Swilling was asked.

“Oh yes. I think they knew Pat Swilling was coming. But they didn’t expect me to bring my four or five friends.”

Hey, Pat. If they can tackle, bring your whole family.

Now, true, the Lions’ offense had some shaky moments. And yes, Sunday was just the opener, and any team coached by Jerry Glanville is, at best, unpredictable.

But a win is a win, a good start is a good start, and a linebacker is . . . a fullback — at least when it comes to Spielman.

“Why didn’t you carry the ball and try to score?” Spielman was asked.

“If I told you that, I’d have to kill you,” he said.

I think he was joking. But the way they played Sunday, I’m not taking any chances.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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