Attention to detail helps John Penisini carve out larger role with Lions
In the early minutes of the Detroit Lions' loss to the New Orleans Saints a little more than a week ago, the Saints faced a third-and-1 at midfield. The handoff went to running back Latavius Murray, who didn't have much daylight, but was able to power ahead for two yards and the first down.
That was the story of the game against the Saints — Detroit's inability to get a stop on third down — but if you watch that play closely, one player stands out. Lined up over right guard, rookie defensive tackle John Penisini plays with textbook technique to make the stop on Murray.
Keeping his pad level low at the snap and his hands inside former Michigan offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz, Penisini easily sheds the block of the man selected five rounds and 173 picks earlier in last April's draft.
A career isn't made on a play, a game or even a season, but as the 2020 campaign progresses, Penisini is seeing more playing time and flashing some real potential as a run-stuffing defensive tackle.
"He has done a nice job for us," defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said. "I just think, like any rookie coming in, no matter what position you play, it takes a little bit of time to get into the scheme. What he has done is just put his head down and keep working. I think Bo Davis has done a heckuva job with him, too, both of those guys working together."
Davis also defers credit for Penisini's early development, praising the effort of Detroit's veteran defensive linemen, led by Danny Shelton, in helping bring the youngster along.
"I give credit where credit is due; the older guys have really done a good job with him," Davis said. "He's progressed with being physical at the point of attack. I mean the guy is coming along well. I'm really proud of him."
Power certainly isn't an issue for the 330-pounder. He has that in spades. But everybody who plays in the trenches at this level is strong. Battles are won with sound technique and that's where Davis is focusing his time coaching Penisini.
It's the nitty-gritty details lost on the casual observer — hand placement, striking through the hips, leverage — that lead to the ability to consistently beat blocks like Penisini did on that third-down play.
With the Lions defense struggling to stop the run, don't be surprised to see Penisini's playing time to continue to tick upward. After playing just under 14% of the defensive snaps in the opener, he was over 31 against the Saints.
"The guy has been working extremely hard, doing everything he needed to do to get himself to where he is," Davis said.