“In his prime, at his best, there wasn’t a better pass rusher in Lions history, save for perhaps Bubba Baker, than Michael Cofer. And the Lions haven’t been able to get to the other team’s passer since.”

I did some heavy research — I’m telling you, I slaved over this — with my focus being the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. After exhaustive work, I came up with this common denominator: No quarterback in the eighty-plus years that the NFL has operated has thrown a single touchdown pass while standing on the sidelines.

I told you it was exhaustive.

It won’t mean a gosh darn thing (this is a family website) if the Lions draft Matthew Stafford, or resurrect Daunte Culpepper, or reanimate Jon Kitna, or transform Dan Orlovsky, or develop Drew Stanton. Won’t matter how freakish Calvin Johnson continues to be. Won’t matter how brilliant of a runner Kevin Smith turns out to be. Won’t even matter how much they improve their Swiss cheese offensive line. None of it will mean a lick if the Lions cannot do one simple thing: get their defense off the freaking (again, family website) field on third down.

Third down is a pro football bellwether. Succeed on it offensively, and you keep drives alive and wear down the defense. Succeed on it defensively, and you severely limit damage against you. And, you keep those dangerous offensive weapons the opponents have on the sidelines, where, as I proved through my research, they can’t harm you.

The Lions, as you can imagine for a team that whiffed on all sixteen of their games last season, were horrible on third down. None of their QBs threw a TD pass from the sidelines, which not only kept the league streak alive, but took away the Lions’ passers best chance. For it was only on the sidelines where the Lions QBs could guarantee themselves tranquility and non-harrassment. On offense, their conversion percentage on third down was among the worst in the league. On defense? Teams made first downs on the Lions while in third down situations as if they were performing non-contact drills in training camp.

The worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) example of this heinous aspect was when the New Orleans Saints marched into Ford Field in December. The Saints went 11-for-11 — yes, you read that correctly — on third down. The official stats show 11-for-12, but that was only because of a kneel-down at the end of the game. A mercy non-conversion.

I’m too tired from the other research, or else I might try this: has any team — and I’ll be willing to include pee-wee teams — EVER gone 11-for-11 on third down? That just seems almost impossible to fathom, had it not actually happened to the Lions. Heck, has anyone ever done that in electric football?

In my opinion, that stat — 0-for-11 on third down stops — was the most damning of all the ghoulish numbers posted by the Lions in 2008. And it was the premier indictment of why the team’s defense needs serious overhaul.

It’s also why I hope the Lions don’t draft Stafford, or Mark Sanchez, with the no. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft.

The Lions need to get off the field on third down. Being unable to do so is demoralizing, bad for conditioning, and a key ingredient to any losing recipe.

There are many reasons for this inability. In fact, where do you want to start? You barely have enough fingers to use as pointers.

There’s the secondary, made up of possibly the worst collection of pass defenders ever assembled. There’s the linebacking corps, which is Ernie Sims and a bunch of bozos. There’s the defensive line, which is incapable of putting consistent pressure on the quarterback. Sometimes, just one of these three aspects is enough to cook you on third down, defensively. The Lions possess all three. Hence the Saints’ 11-for-11 that Sunday afternoon in December. And the Lions NFL-last ranking in third down defense.

Oh, how I wish the Lions resist temptation and bypass Stafford, Sanchez, or any QB in the first round and use their early picks to shore up their God-awful defense. Specifically, the pass rush.

Quick, name the Lions’ last big-time pass rusher. OK, not so quick. I’ll wait.

I’m still waiting.

OK, I’ll help you out. You remember a marvelous LB/DE named Michael Cofer? Cofer was a beast; almost unblockable. Had he played for a winning team for any length of time, he would have been mentioned among the Lawrence Taylors of the world.

Michael Cofer, the Lions’ last true pass rushing specialist

 

The last time I saw Cofer, I was at the Silverdome and he was being carted off the field after a win over the Miami Dolphins. That was in September 1991. He had suffered a severe knee injury that wound up being career-ending. He had 62.5 sacks as a Lion, but just two after that injury.

In his prime, at his best, there wasn’t a better pass rusher in Lions history, save for perhaps Bubba Baker, than Michael Cofer. And the Lions haven’t been able to get to the other team’s passer since.

It would be nice if they started doing it again. Of all the above-mentioned aspects of third down defense, I think you wouldn’t be wrong if you placed “pressure the quarterback” No. 1 on the priority list.

A solid pass rush is the first domino. Once knocked over, it affects the rest of the defense, in a positive way. Not the least of which is to hide, as much as possible, a weak secondary. Even the best DBs can only cover receivers for so long. Bad DBs need as much help as they can get.

Aaron Curry, a hybrid LB/DE type from Wake Forest, could fit the bill. But, there aren’t too many others who would be worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. The Lions could trade and drop down in the pecking order, of course.

Yet it looks like the Lions are going to draft Stafford after all. I wouldn’t go looking for razor blades and cyanide if they do so, because Stafford is, indeed, a heck of a prospect. But I would worry that he’d become another Lions draft bust at that position. And, there’s this: not WHERE would Stafford play, but WHEN?

The Lions never have the football.

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