Lions’ Tulloch overcomes injury, age to return to form

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — During a 0-5 start that eventually became 1-7, the Lions faced an increasingly tough schedule and some of their defensive players showed their age.

Linebacker Stephen Tulloch turned 30 last January, and after bouncing back from a knee injury and looking good in preseason, he struggled, particularly in the pass game. So, hoping to fix the issue, coaches started pulling him on likely passing downs.

Even with the decreased role, Tulloch will likely reach 100 tackles this season, a testament to his work in the run game. And, as the Lions went 3-1 after the bye week, they’ve held teams to 58.5 rushing yards per game with Tulloch being a key factor.

“I think Tully has been doing a heck of a job for us,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Thursday. “What we’ve done, I think, and it’s helped him is we’ve streamlined the packages he’s in. He’s not out completely on pass downs, but we’ve tried to streamline what he does. And I think that’s really helped his game.”

For Tulloch, the last two years have been a new experience, one he’s declined to discuss despite multiple attempts. From 2010-13, his last year with Tennessee and first three with the Lions, he played nearly every snap.

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Then, there was the injury, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, in Week 3 that ended his 2014 season after a strong start. It was the first time he missed a game after playing in 131 straight games to start his career.

For the vast majority of those games, Tulloch was the defensive captain and a guy who actively communicated with everyone on the field, something Haloti Ngata has seen in his first year in Detroit and Rams coach Jeff Fisher saw as Tulloch’s coach all five years in Tennessee.

“He’s the mainstay of the defense,” Fisher said. “He gets everybody lined up, he runs and gets the tackles. … He’s clearly come back off the injury and is playing really good right now.”

Whether it was his injury, from which he’s 14 months removed from surgery, or his age, Tulloch is now trying to show the first half of the year was an anomaly, not the start of a decline.

Similar questions linger over other Lions defenders like Ngata (31), Jason Jones (29), James Ihedgibo (32) and Rashean Mathis (35), which 31-year-old Darryl Tapp noted Thursday.

“He’s old, man,” Tapp said. “We’re all old. I’m 10 (years in), J.J.’s eight, Tully’s 10, Haloti’s 10. As you develop and change, you’re put in some different situations, but I don’t see anything different with the way he’s been playing at all.”

Tapp said the Lions defense knew it needed “to tighten down on the bolts” after the rough start. After ranking 26th in total defense and 30th in run defense entering Week 10, the Lions are now 17th and 18th, respectively.

With Tulloch, Austin acknowledged he might’ve felt fine physically, but still needed time adjusting to the game speed after missing most of the 2014 season.

“It was just a matter of time, I think, before (Tulloch) started playing well,” Austin said.

Lions at Rams

Kickoff: Sunday, 1 p.m., Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

TV / radio: FOX / 97.1 FM

Records: Lions 4-8, Rams 4-8

Line: Lions by 3