Detroit — This is what they want to be, and what they need to be. For all the focus on offensive stars, the Lions are trying to evolve, with less flash and more smash.
So they spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon chasing ghosts in green and yellow. Aaron Rodgers had nowhere to go and nowhere to throw, and the Lions won with pounding, punishing defense. They beat the Packers 19-7 Sunday with a snarl that opened up possibilities, and maybe altered perceptions.
The Lions are 2-1 and atop the NFC North after beating their longtime nemesis, making a different statement in noisy Ford Field. To win consistently in the NFL, it takes power up front, and the Lions' defensive line is determined to make it happen. They came out in the pregame introduction not as individuals, but as a four-man unit, led by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Then they played like a four-man wall, helped by superb linebacker DeAndre Levy, protecting a patchwork secondary that was supposed to get shredded.
It never happened, not even close. Rodgers came in with a 9-0 record against Detroit in games he finished, and everyone knew the history. He was held to 162 yards passing, his lowest total in six years, was sacked twice and didn't have a completion longer than 18 yards. Imagine this: The Lions' defense actually outscored Rodgers 8-7, with a fumble-return touchdown by Don Carey and a safety by Levy.
The Lions can't expect to win on a heave and prayer, counting on Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and others to light it up. Stafford struggled against Green Bay's pass rush and had two interceptions and a fumble. So Jim Caldwell and his staff put more trust in the defensive line, trust that was earned and returned.
"The only people that can block us is us, that's how we feel," said Fairley, who forced a fumble. "As a defense, we said we gotta keep knocking (Rodgers) around, keep knocking him around, because he's not gonna let us know when he's done."
Rodgers was done with 6:54 left, when his fourth-down pass from the Lions' 20 bounced harmlessly in the end zone. Then most impressively, the Lions wrapped it up in smash-mouth style, with tough runs by Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, keeping the ball to the end.
There was a lot to overcome, and there's a lot more ahead. The Lions were down to using defensive backs they'd just plucked from the streets, almost literally, after Carey aggravated a hamstring injury. Then they lost linebacker Stephen Tulloch, possibly for a while, when he twisted his left knee while celebrating a sack. Tulloch was sheepish about the injury but said he wasn't embarrassed, although it helped the Lions won. It also showed the depth of the defense, and reminded everyone how incredibly valuable Levy is.
The sixth-year linebacker had to take over the defensive play-calling, which meant he had to use Tulloch's helmet equipped with the speaker linked to coordinator Teryl Austin. The helmet didn't fit quite right and the words were garbled, so after a couple of series, the Lions switched the speaker to Levy's helmet.
"It was a little frustrating at first, but the big thing was, I wanted to keep my composure," said Levy, who tackled Eddie Lacy in the end zone for a safety. "I couldn't be panicking and screaming to the sideline about my helmet."
All the while, he kept the defense in solid position. The Lions did everything possible to protect their secondary without resorting to blitzes, so the Packers figured they could run. And they kept running smack into Fairley, Suh, Jason Jones, Ziggy Ansah, Levy and others.
The Lions kept their composure and rattled Rodgers. You almost never see the quarterback out of sync with receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and he was at a loss to explain it.
"Well, they have a good defense, you have to give them credit," said Rodgers, 16-for-27. "We didn't make enough adjustments to score more points."
The Lions' line has toted huge potential for a while, and now it's stoked by increased hunger. Suh and Fairley could become free agents, and Fairley was demoted during the preseason because of weight issues. He's happy to say the tactic worked, and the motivation is real.
"It helped me a lot, brought me back down to earth and humbled me," Fairley said. "I knew this team was gonna move on with or without me. (Free agency) is always in the back of the mind, but right now we're here with the Detroit Lions, trying to get this team to the playoffs."
The Lions are going through a necessary transition with a new coaching staff, which understands the flighty nature of pass-heavy teams. If the face of the team gradually becomes the four faces of a dominant defensive line, that's not a bad thing.
In a meeting room on the Saturday before games, each defensive lineman is given a link, a big chunk of metal that systematically gets attached to the next player's. The chain is passed around and players say a few words, then add their link. Fairley's words this week: Stop the run.
You stop the run, it's easier to stop the pass, and the Lions stopped it all against their old rival. The offense's miscues can't become a habit, but on this day, they were overshadowed.
"When (our line) doesn't get to the quarterback and ruin a quarterback's day, that's a surprise to me," center Dominic Raiola said. "When they do stuff like that, it's no surprise. They're bad men out there."
Bad to the bone, especially bad at home. In football, it's the best kind of bad to be.