Whether he drew motivation from his summer demotion or is in better shape with a recently hired personal chef — or both, defensive tackle Nick Fairley has been a key reason the Lions have allowed the fewest yards in the NFL through three games.
Fairley is a little leaner than he was when the coaches gave his starting job to C.J. Mosley. And he's playing meaner, creating regular pressure in the pass game and clogging gaps in the run game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Fairley has five quarterback hurries this season on his 97 snaps and ranks fourth among defensive tackles against the run based on the site's evaluations.
In Sunday's 19-7 win over the Green Bay Packers, Fairley played particularly well with two tackles, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble that led to a 40-yard touchdown return by Don Carey.
After the game Sunday, Fairley stood in the locker room and took questions for at least 10 minutes, something he rarely does, and said he's much better now than he was a month ago.
"A whole lot better," he said. "Better shape, better wind, ready to go."
Fairley said he didn't need the demotion, and no player should require that kind of wakeup call. But it certainly helped.
"It brought me back down to earth. It humbled me," he said. "I know that this team is going to move on with or without me, and I knew that. That's the kind of mindset that I got, and I was like, 'Hey, I want to be with this team. I want to move on with them.'"
But this is not Fairley at his peak, and he reminded reporters of that Sunday when one asked if this is his best stretch of football in the NFL. It's not even close, which is why his lack of effort and discipline at the start of training camp was so disconcerting for the coaches and the front office that will have to decide if it wants to keep Fairley after this season.
In 2012, Fairley had a five-game stretch with 23 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles. When fellow tackle Ndamukong Suh says Fairley can be better than him, it's not completely accurate, but Fairley can approach that level, which would be devastating for opposing offensive lines.
So far this season, the Lions have allowed 244.3 yards per game, best in the NFL. They're giving up 63.7 rush yards per game, second in the league, and 15 points per game, tied for second. And after holding Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to just 162 passing yards, the Lions are third in pass defense, giving up just 180.7 yards per game.
The backups playing in the secondary deserve plenty of credit, but the Lions' defensive line has been the key reason for the success in pass defense, putting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
On Sunday, Fairley explained the large chain defensive end George Johnson has carried onto the field the past two games. During the defensive line's Saturday meeting, coaches Kris Kocurek and Jim Washburn give each of the 10 linemen a chain the size of a small adult hand. Each player states his goal for the game, then the group puts the chains together.
"We're linked up, ain't no weak link," Fairley said. "You can't pull that apart."
So far, thanks to Suh, Fairley, Mosley and the five defensive ends who play, the Lions are playing with the strength of metal.
"The only people that can block us is us," Fairley said.
Around the NFC North
■ The Lions' win Sunday dropped the Packers to 1-2 and showed reasons for Green Bay to be concerned about the offense. Wide receiver Randall Cobb struggled to separate against fourth-string nickel cornerbacks. The Packers can feel better about their defense, though, after forcing three turnovers and giving up just one touchdown.
■ The Bears are tied with the Lions atop the NFC North after Monday's 27-19 win over the New York Jets. Chicago's offense continues to impress, but the defense looked good Monday, forcing three turnovers, including rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller's third interception.
■ It's Teddy Bridgewater time in Minnesota, and the Vikings hope the rookie quarterback can give the Adrian Peterson-less offense a lift. In Sunday's 20-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Bridgewater was 12 of 20 for 150 yards, so there's room for improvement.
Around the NFL
■ If the Cincinnati Bengals aren't the best team in the league, they're very close. At 3-0, Cincinnati has outscored opponents by 47 points, easily the best in the league. They can defend, they can run with Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill, and if quarterback Andy Dalton can perform in the postseason, the Bengals will be playing deep into January.
■ In many ways, the Arizona Cardinals are the Bengals of the NFC. With a 23-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers, the Cardinals are showing teams don't need an elite quarterback to win. Former Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton won the past two games as the defense has carried the team.
■ Another former Spartans quarterback deserves a shout-out, the second in as many weeks for Kirk Cousins. Washington lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, 37-34, Sunday, but Cousins was dynamite with 427 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. There's no way Washington can bench him even when Robert Griffin III is healthy.
■ Packers rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix made his first career interception Sunday off Matthew Stafford and brought the football back to Green Bay.
"It's going to be put up in the case somewhere," Clinton-Dix said, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
More importantly for the Packers, though, is the interception ended a 22-game streak without an interception by a safety.