Niyo: Jarrad Davis a quick hit in Lions' defensive surge

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson is hit by Detroit Lions middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, left, during the first half.

Allen Park — Jarrad Davis had one of his best games Sunday in the Lions’ 17-3 win at Arizona.

But if you really want to get his position coach fired up, ask Al Golden about some of the “inconsistent” play we saw from the second-year linebacker earlier this season. 

“I’ll answer the question, but I’m not gonna buy the inconsistent part of it,” said Golden, the Lions’ linebackers coach. “I think he’s been playing really good football, I really do. And for us, playing really good football is not necessarily doing what feels good for you. It’s about the collective mindset.”

Maybe so — and more on that from Golden in a minute — but perhaps a strong finish to the season will change the collective mindset of those who’ve been critical of Davis, last year’s first-round pick who was installed immediately as the quarterback of the Lions’ defense.  

And even Davis will admit what we’re seeing from him now is different than what we saw the first two months of the season, as the Lions got acclimated to a new defensive scheme under head coach Matt Patricia.

“I’m definitely moving a lot faster on a lot of plays right now,” Davis said.

Getting up to speed

And so, too, are his teammates, it seems, as the Lions’ have held their last three opponents — including the high-flying Los Angeles Rams — to an average of 295 yards per game.

“Honestly, we knew that we were gonna have a little bit of a learning curve,” Davis said. “Going through trial by fire, just going out and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. Or why does it work? Why doesn’t it work? And just putting in the time with my teammates, making sure that we’re on the same page and we’re seeing things the same way. So it allows to go out and play faster, knowing that, ‘Hey, I can be here, knowing that he’s gonna be there to cover me.’ Putting the extra time in has definitely helped free us up as a defense.”

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Feel free to disagree, of course. And it’s obvious this latest test wasn’t much of one, considering the anemic state of Arizona’s offense, with a rookie quarterback playing behind a patchwork offensive line.

Still, there’s a trend line that’s hard to dispute, as the Lions’ run defense has plugged most of its leaks — the Damon Harrison acquisition makes a sizeable difference — and ranks among the league’s best (71.6 yards per game) over the last month.

“The more time you put in, the more you’re gonna get out of anything in life,” Davis said. “That’s kind of the philosophy we’ve been carrying around. And we’ve been putting in a lot of time just trying to really figure things out and get a better understanding of what we have to do. 

“We had to switch up a lot of things within this building and within this defense. And we’re reaping the fruits of it right now.”

So is Davis, for that matter. And however you view his play this season, there was no mistaking his impact in Sunday’s win at Arizona. He finished with a team-high eight tackles, including two for losses, a sack and a pass breakup. Davis also played a major role in bottling up the Cardinals’ dynamic running back, David Johnson, who finished with 15 carries for 49 yards and eight catches for just 12 yards — 10 of them coming on one play.

Davis flashed some impressive closing speed to make several key stops as the Lions asserted themselves early, blowing up a pass play to Johnson for a 6-yard loss on one series, then barreling past Johnson to sack Josh Rosen on third down on the next.

But it’s more than that, Golden insists.

Sharing the load

“Sometimes him taking on a block frees up A’Shawn (Robinson) or Snacks (Harrison) or someone like that to make a play, whereas if he just ran over the top (to try and make) the tackle, it was hit or miss. And if he misses, it’s a big play,” Golden said. “So I think he’s playing within the mindset of the defense, and he’s doing it unselfishly. And let’s not mistake that for being inconsistent.”

And no one should mistake Davis for anything but a leader on this defense. Beyond the obvious physical traits, that’s what attracted the Lions’ scouts and general manager Bob Quinn to him leading up to the draft last year. It’s also what has impressed Patricia since he started working with him in April.

“JD, he’s unbelievable,” Patricia said. “From a coaching standpoint, he’s everything you want in a player.”

The hope is there’s a lot more there, too.

Davis is emerging as a pass-rushing threat — Sunday’s sack was his fifth of the season — and he’s one of only three NFL players this season to rack up 75 or more tackles and five sacks. (The Titans’ Jayon Brown and Colts rookie Darius Leonard are the others.)

“He’s extremely fast, he’s versatile, he’s explosive,” Patricia said. “I’ve just been trying to use all his tools that he has … to put him in some different positions to try and make it difficult for the offense, but also give him a chance to go out and produce.”

And playing behind an interior defensive line that’s quickly becoming a strength for the Lions — with Harrison and Robinson joined by rookie standout Da’Shawn Hand and veteran Ricky Jean-Francois — certainly helps clear up some of the traffic, if not the confusion.

“I think this young man is playing really good football for us,” Golden said. “He’s a leader, he’s instinctive, and he’s tough as nails. And his mindset and the mindset of a lot of the guys up front is to play collectively and to be unselfish. And I think that’s what’s leading to some success.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo