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When Stephen Tulloch suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 last year, he lost his title as the NFL's reigning defensive ironman — he had played 131 consecutive games to start his career.

Since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Tulloch hardly has wanted to discuss the injury that cost him 13 games in a season he started with 20 tackles and two sacks over his first nine quarters.

"It's old," Tulloch said last weekend when asked about why he rolls his eyes to questions about the injury.

For years, Tulloch prepared himself to be available week in and week out. Massages, chiropractic services, acupuncture, Pilates and yoga were part of his routine. He also spoke regularly with former Washington linebacker London Fletcher, whose 256 consecutive games played are fourth in history.

After months of rehab, Tulloch said he doesn't know if he's faster or stronger, but said his time away helped the rest of his body, and he's fresher.

"I feel better than I did before, so that's always a good thing, right?" he said.

A better Tulloch could help the Lions defense remain among the best in the NFL.

With his return, DeAndre Levy can focus more on his duties than assisting Tahir Whitehead in the middle. Tulloch's return also moves Whitehead back to the strong side.

"It'll be huge," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of having Tulloch back. "You're talking about a guy that has a lot of experience in a lot of big games. He plays, he triggers fast (and) he brings a calmness to the defense, so you can't underestimate that. And you pair him with DeAndre, those two guys inside, and now with the experience that you hear about last year, I think we have a really good core."

In last Thursday's exhibition victory over the Jets, Tulloch was the defensive captain. He played nine snaps and didn't accumulate any statistics, but helped the starting defense hold the Jets to a field goal on the opening drive.

"It was good to be back out there again," said Tulloch, who had at least 111 tackles in each of his first three years with the Lions. "I know this week (against Washington) we'll play more, so it'll be good to fine-tune our defense, get our schemes down and just get ready."

Recovering from a ligament tear was Tulloch's first step in making a full return. Now, he has to adjust to the new pieces on defense.

In his first four seasons with the Lions, he primarily played behind Ndamukong Suh. During camp, Tulloch said he's seen defensive tackles Tyrunn Walker and Caraun Reid playing well, but still has to learn to play with Haloti Ngata, who will fill Suh's spot at left tackle.

"That whole injury stuff is last year," he said. "This is my 26th year playing football, dating back to when I was 5 years old. I'm built for stuff like this, so just getting back out here again, back to me being me."

And during the first week of camp, Tulloch took one question about what it'll feel like to take his first hit in live action.

He wasn't concerned.

"I give hits," he said.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein

Detroit at Washington

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, FedEx Field, Landover, Md.

TV/radio: Channel 2/97.1

Exhibition records: Both teams 1-0

Exhibition series: Detroit leads 11-7

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