September 16, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Lions defensive line must growl now

Kyle Vanden Bosch and the Lions defensive line are proving to be the team's strongest unit. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Allen Park

The Lions deserve a little sympathy, sure, not that they're requesting it. They lost their franchise quarterback, lost a touchdown because of a goofy NFL rule apparently devised by intoxicated engineers, and lost an opener they clearly could have won.

But they don't get to lament, not with the season one game old, not with the Eagles coming to town and bringing Michael Vick's legs with them. It's the fans' job to gripe (excellent work, people) and the media's job to dig for an explanation (the Lions are cursed!).

It's the Lions' job to figure out a way to recover, and it begins with their strength, a deep, defiant defensive line. They smacked around the Bears in that 19-14 loss, with Kyle Vanden Bosch a red-eyed dynamo and rookie Ndamukong Suh a heaving force.

While Shaun Hill fills in for Matthew Stafford, you're advised to set aside giddy thoughts of a gaudy offense and realize where the Lions must win, for now, is in the defensive trenches. Hill is a solid backup and likely will play at least a couple weeks. The actual estimate is a state secret, as Jim Schwartz bravely refused Wednesday to let the information fall into enemy hands, despite intense interrogation.

Schwartz and the players aren't making excuses, and that's the right approach. If the defensive line does what it can, and Vanden Bosch does what he did, and Suh, Corey Williams and the other linemen keep churning, the Lions have a shot to hang on until their offense is whole.

"We're over it, and if anything, I think we're hungrier because we realize how close we are," said Vanden Bosch, who led the Lions with 11 tackles, a huge total for an end. "You can't let one loss turn into two by feeling sorry for yourself. If we need to play better on the D-line to win games, I hope the rest of the team leans on us. We expect to dominate up front."

They didn't fully dominate the Bears, but they did punch 'em hard where it hurts. They sacked Jay Cutler four times, all by linemen -- Suh, Williams, Sammie Hill, Turk McBride. They also held the Bears to 3.3 yards per rush and stuffed them on four straight plays from the 1.

That goal-line stand would be this team's signature right now, if not for one mildly controversial pass to Calvin Johnson. On the slim chance you missed it, the apparent winning touchdown was wiped out because the NFL hates the Lions (I kid!).

No free passes

This is where the sympathy angle arises, and immediately gets squashed. Strange things happen in football. And while it's fair to wonder why Stafford hasn't been able to stay healthy, it's wrong to say all is lost.

The Lions don't get a free pass just because their free-wheeling passer is out. The offense doesn't automatically recover when Stafford returns, by the way. The offensive line has to be much, much better, rookie Jahvid Best has to prove he's as explosive as he showed during exhibitions, and Johnson has to be great, not just very good.

In the meantime, the defensive line needs to grab quarterbacks and toss them around. Suh had one tackle and two quarterback hurries, and although double-teamed constantly by the Bears, he made an impact.

If the Lions drop their heads now, they're liable to look up and see Vick racing past. The one-time star is expected to start over Kevin Kolb (concussion), and Vick's 103 rushing yards in relief against the Packers showed he still can be scary dangerous.

"I know how to play against quarterbacks like that -- you just gotta be able to get on them quicker and close fast," Suh said. "If you allow them to use their legs as a weapon, they'll cause havoc all game."

I don't necessarily think the Eagles will cause havoc. That's a team in transition, playing its backup, although Vick obviously is more renowned than Hill.

Defense, Suh must step up

The Lions have major defensive concerns, no doubt. Their secondary remains in flux, and safety Louis Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy and end Cliff Avril didn't practice Wednesday with various ailments.

We spent a lot of camp extolling how quickly Best could change the offense, and he still could. But it's time to figure out how quickly Suh can alter the defense. The No. 2 overall pick is closing some holes and opening some eyes, especially those of Vanden Bosch, who wears unsettling red contact lenses to cut the glare, which now grows.

"You throw on that tape and you wouldn't be able to guess (Suh)'s a rookie," Vanden Bosch said. "They came at him with a lot of different stuff, and he looks like he's in midseason form already. He really, really played well for his first game."

It was just a first game, that's what the Lions need to remind themselves. The schedule and the task don't get any easier, but rather than belabor what they lost, they might as well show us what they got.

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