Davis' absence reveals Lions' vulnerability to the run

James Hawkins
The Detroit News


Falcon running back Devonta Freeman avoids the tackle of Lions defensive lineman Jeremiah Valoaga and picks up positive yardage in the first quarter.

Allen Park — Through the first two games, the Lions’ run defense was off to a roaring start.

But without starting middle linebacker Jarrad Davis and his physical presence on the field, the Lions offered little resistance as the Falcons seemingly ran the ball at will in Sunday’s crushing 30-26 loss.

Granted, Atlanta’s offense poses a problem for any defense and Davis’ absence isn’t the sole reason the Falcons rumbled for 151 yards and a healthy 5.4 yards per carry, but it proved to be a glaring void as the linebacking unit wasn’t nearly as effective at tackling and filling run gaps.

“We can do a better job in a number of different areas and I think our guys will work on that,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. “We’ve done it the last couple weeks and that’s one of the things that I think about when you look at, it’s one game. If it becomes a persistent situation where it happens consistently across the board, then you’re obviously going to have some concerns.”

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With Davis, the team’s first-round pick, in the lineup the first two contests, the Lions gave up 107 total yards on the ground. In Week 1, they held the Cardinals 45 yards rushing on 18 carries (2.5 yards per carry) as a team and stymied star running back David Johnson to the tune of 23 yards on 11 carries (2.1 yards per carry) with a long of six yards.

Then against the Giants on the road in Week 2, the Lions limited New York to 62 yards rushing on 18 carries (3.4 yards per carry) and shut down lead back Paul Perkins, who finished with 10 yards on seven carries.

Yet with Davis sidelined with a concussion and Tahir Whitehead sliding over to man the middle, Falcons star running back Devonta Freeman alone nearly matched the combined rushing total of the Cardinals and Giants with 106 yards on 21 carries, which ranked fifth among Week 3 rushing leaders heading into Monday night’s game.

Freeman also broke off seven runs of at least eight yards with a long of 18, while Tevin Coleman added 46 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per carry.

“I think you learn something about your team every single week in terms of styles that they run against you, what they consider to be a weakness, how they attack you and then you have to adjust,” said Caldwell, who declined to provide an update on Davis’ status. “Because if you don’t adjust, you’re going to see those exact same plays week, after week, after week, after week. So, let’s see how well we adjust.”

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Against the Falcons, Whitehead played every defensive snap while filling Davis’ role, but the timeshare for the other two linebacker spots was split among Paul Worrilow, Nick Bellore and rookie Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

Worrilow garnered the most playing time of the three and was on the field for 42 of the team’s 68 defensive plays, while Bellore made his first regular-season appearance of the year and Reeves-Maybin played a career-high 26 snaps.

Despite the rotating pieces, Caldwell said there wasn’t an issue with a lack of chemistry.

“I think all in all what we anticipate no matter who we put in there, that they can execute,” Caldwell said. “We work at it enough, they understand their assignments and it’s just a matter of getting it done more so than anything else. Don’t believe that that necessarily had anything to do with us winning or losing.

“Regardless if we don’t have a guy in there, we expect those guys to step in and play at the exact same level of the guy that they’re replacing. That’s how we’re built, that’s how we’re constructed, that’s how we think, that’s how we set our standards. We fell short of that this week. We didn’t perform as well across the board as we’re capable.”