Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers talk about what went wrong against the Panthers and what has to go right against the Saints on Sunday. Detroit News
Allen Park — The Lions’ top defensive priority each week is stopping the run, and through five games, they’ve been highly effective with that mission. The success is reminiscent of the 2014 team, the most-effective run-stopping unit in franchise history.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Lions have allowed opponents to rush for just 74.6 yards per game, good for third in the NFL. The 3.3 yards per carry is tied for fourth. And the Lions are just one of two teams to not allow an opponent to record a run of 20 yards or longer.
In 2014, the Lions held opponents to a league-low 69.3 yards per game, and only two managed to eclipse the 100-yard mark.
That group was headlined by a dominant defensive tackle rotation. Running up the gut against Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly generally bore little fruit.
It wasn’t much easier getting the edge against rangy defensive ends Ziggy Ansah, Jason Jones and George Johnson. And in the second level, the Lions had linebacker DeAndre Levy and hard-hitting safety James Ihedigbo recklessly plunging into their gaps. Everyone played their role and played it well.
The current unit offers a lot of similarities in that regard.
“Our defensive ends are doing a really good job of setting the edge and collapsing the run lanes, so there’s not a lot of room,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “Our big guys inside are holding up double teams, not allowing the guards and the centers to run up on our second level, and our linebackers and safeties are playing downhill.
“That’s what we’re doing I think really well, and I think when you watched us last week, we didn’t win the game, and we did a lot of things poorly, but one of the things we did well was we really got after the run game.”
Few teams have a rushing attack more versatile than the Carolina Panthers, last Sunday’s opponent. The three-headed monster in the backfield — speedy rookie Christian McCaffrey, between-the-tackles power back Johnathan Stewart, and the NFL’s most dangerous dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton — can strain any defense. Yet the Lions held them to 28 yards on the ground, the franchise’s lowest output in more than five years.
The formula for the success is the same. The Lions control the line of scrimmage, particularly setting hard edges with defensive ends Ansah, the recently re-signed Johnson, Cornelius Washington and Anthony Zettel. Behind the front four, linebacker Jarrad Davis may not be as well-rounded as Levy was in his prime, but the rookie is bigger and plays the run with similar aggression. The same can be said about safety Tavon Wilson, who packs a similar punch as Ihedigbo in the box.
And Detroit’s other defensive backs really round out the overall product. Cornerbacks Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs all embrace contact, which isn’t always the case for players at that position.
“Well that’s one of the things, we have guys, they have to buy its defense, it’s not cover and no cover,” Austin said. “Defense, you’re required to tackle, and so if our guys don’t want to tackle, we probably won’t find a spot for them. That’s just how we operate.”
So, yeah, it’s easy to draw some comparisons, even if there are obvious differences. Still, Lions coach Jim Caldwell would prefer to avoid the discussion.
“This group stands on its own, and we’re just now getting started,” Caldwell said. “Nevertheless, I do think (the 2017 defense) is one that’s proven that it can play and play well. We just got to keep doing it consistently.”
Keeping it going will prove challenging, no doubt. The team’s lone hiccup this season came against the Atlanta Falcons, who churned out 151 rushing yards in a victory at Ford Field. That also happened to be a game the Lions were without both Davis and Wilson, who suffered injuries the week before.
The duo shared the field again for the first time against Carolina and the impact was clear, combining for 5.5 tackles for a loss.
Now the Lions have to overcome another significant injury, after defensive tackle Haloti Ngata suffered a season-ending bicep tear. While past his prime, the five-time Pro Bowler was still arguably the team’s best interior run-stuffer.
The Lions will increase the roles of A’Shawn Robinson, Akeem Spence and Jeremiah Ledbetter and plug in new pieces Datone Jones and the returning Caraun Reid to patch that hole. But expectations will remain unchanged.
On deck in the New Orleans Saints, who rank 21st in rushing, gaining 94.0 yards per game.