Allen Park – The Detroit Lions put together an impressive performance on the ground during last weekend’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts, quelling some questions about the team’s run game. But the key to success in the NFL is consistency and the Lions face a stiff challenge to maintain their momentum in that department against a stout Tennessee Titans’ front seven this Sunday at Ford Field.
The Titans defense flexed its muscles in season opener, shutting down the Minnesota Vikings and All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson was stymied by Tennessee and mustered a paltry 31 yards on 19 carries for a 1.6 yard-per-carry average, his worst in seven seasons.
“It certainly is one of those things that gives you a pretty good indication that they’re really good up front,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Minnesota can run the ball with the best of them. They’re built to run the ball. They’ve got big, strong guys up front and for them to be able to contain arguably one of the best rushers the game’s ever known and keep him at bay.”
It wasn’t too long ago Tennessee had one of the league’s worst run defenses. In 2013, the team gave up the second-most rushing yards in the NFL.
Enter Dick LeBeau.
A Hall of Fame defensive back who still holds the Lions’ franchise record with 62 interceptions, LeBeau’s calling card as a defensive coordinator has been constructing units that give opposing running backs little to no room to operate.
In 11 seasons orchestrating the Pittsburgh Steelers defense (2004-14), the team finished in the top-five against the run eight times. After stepping down from his role with the Steelers, LeBeau joined the Titans staff in 2015 and immediately got the unit moving in the right direction.
While the team finished 18th against the run last year -- largely based on volume -- the Titans only allowed opponents to gain 3.9 yards per carry, which ranked eighth in the NFL. They were particularly effective limiting big plays, giving up 10 carries of 20 yards or more and none 40-plus yards.
“It’s really important to them, and we always say kind of in coaching, you get what you emphasize,” Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “I think they emphasize stopping the run and that’s evident on tape.”
For LeBeau’s group, it all starts up front with Jurrell Casey.
Playing in Tennessee, and lacking an eye-popping stat line, Casey flies under the radar with the casual fan, but he’s well known in NFL circles. One of the more disruptive defensive ends in the league, he was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2015.
“He’s got great explosiveness, heavy hands and a great motor,” Lions center Travis Swanson said. “Everything that makes a defensive lineman special, he kind of has. He’s definitely someone you have to respect.”
The Titans like to move Casey around, playing him inside and outside and on both the right and left sides. The team will also incorporate plenty of twists and stunts, even against the run, to wreak havoc with opposing blocking schemes and free their linemen to make plays.
“They can give you a variety of different looks, which creates problems,” Caldwell said. “They mix it up on you pretty well. Not only that, they stunt you a decent amount and they can do it every snap if they wish. That gives you all kinds of issues to consider in all of your run game and in your pass game.”
Against the Colts last week, the Lions gained 116 yards on the ground. Running back tandem Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick accounted for 108 yards of that production, needing only 19 carries to do the damage.
Maintaining their new-found balanced offense against the Titans will be difficult, but the Lions aren't backing away from the challenge.
“I expect it every game, really,” Abdullah said. “I’m disappointed when we don’t put up that kind of production. We can be a lot better. There were a lot of areas, watching the film, where we could be more sound, execute a lot better.
“(They’re) really athletic up front -- physical team, bring a lot of energy. We just have to bring the same energy and execute like we have been. We just have to do our job, focus on what we do and we’ll be fine.”