Allen Park — Facing the Packers last week, the Lions’ defensive game plan was to stop the run and put Aaron Rodgers into predictable passing situations.
They were able to hold Eddie Lacy, who had 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie season to just 36 yards and limited Rodgers to 162 passing yards, his lowest total since his first season as a starter. The Lions rank first overall and second against the run; keeping offenses one-dimensional and focused on the pass is the Lions’ way of making defense simple.
Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin points to the reducing the number of big plays as the key to their success, keyed by the defensive line and the commitment to making teams pass.
“We want to stop the run and it starts with our guys up front who’ve been doing a great job this year,” Austin said. “It opens up a lot of things if you don’t stop the run. That is our number one deal — we go into the game and we want to make sure we stop the run and we do whatever we have to do to try and stop it that week.”
The effort ramps up this week against the Jets, who rank second (157.7 yards), with a dual threat of Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson in the backfield. Ivory had a career-best 833 yards in his first season with the Jets last year and started the season with 102 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders.
“They’re two different types of runners. Ivory I know they said he’s probably going to get a little bit more work this week but he is a downhill physical back. He’s going to be very similar to the guys from Carolina in terms of how he runs — he is a tough tackle,” Austin said. “We’re going to have to put bodies on him and have to swarm around the ball.”
Although Johnson isn’t as explosive as his 2,000-yard rushing season in 2009, he still provides a change of pace with his speed, posting his sixth straight 1,000-yard season last year with the Titans.
“Chris Johnson gives them the speed element and he still has the speed; if he gets outside, he’s going to make it a long day because he can run still,” Austin said. “They give you a little bit of difference and we’ve got to make sure we put bodies on them and we keep them corralled inside and not let them get outside our defense.”
The run game is critical in keeping second-year quarterback Geno Smith in comfortable situations, where he doesn’t have to make tough plays and put the Jets in bad positions. But having two change-of-pace backs makes the Jets formidable, especially with the ability to switch back and forth to keep defenses off balance.
“That’s how they do it: they’ll put (Ivory) in a few plays and wear you down and Chris Johnson comes in and will run away from you,” safety Glover Quin said. “(Ivory) comes back in and wears you down some more and then Chris Johnson comes back in to run from you again.
“They have a very good running attack so we have to make sure we have all guys flying around, trying to make stops.”
For the 1-2 Jets, the success in the run game hasn’t translated to more wins, but it has given them something to build. Smith credits the offensive line for making the running game go.
“They’ve done a tremendous job in the run game with opening holes for the guys and really blocking downfield and giving our guys that extra couple of yards that we need,” Smith said Wednesday. “Our backs have been hitting hard and then myself, we’ve been picking up those extra few yards here and there. So, we just hope to continue that and just keep working at it.”
With Smith’s running ability — as well as some other options off the bench with backup quarterback Michael Vick — the Lions defense will have to be alert for trick plays and quarterback runs, in addition to the normal running game.
The Lions got a glimpse against the Panthers, who have a similar type of running attack with dual running backs and the threat that Cam Newton provided.
“It’s going to be on us in the front seven,” defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. “We’ll have to be disciplined and stay in our gaps.”
Safety James Ihedigbo, who excels in stopping the run, is on pace to be in the lineup for the first time this season — perfect timing for the Lions.