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Chemistry, 970-pound wall fueling Lions' turnaround stopping the run

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

If there's one defensive principle the Detroit Lions subscribe to above any other it's that success starts with stopping the run. 

So it stands to reason the team's inability to do so effectively played a significant role in a 1-3 start to the season. But starting in the second half of the team's Week 4 loss to New Orleans, and continuing in the two games following their bye, the Lions have been one of the league's best at shutting down opposing ground games. 

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After limiting the Saints to 57 yards on 20 carries in the second half, the Lions came out of their bye and shut down the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons rushing attacks, limiting those two opponents to a combined 110 yards on 42 carries. 

Detroit Lions defensive end Nick Williams (97) walks to the line during the second half 
Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. The Detroit Lions won 23-22.

Most importantly, the Lions emerged victorious in both those games. 

So what's changed? Well, namely two things. First, the team's defensive front is starting to build some chemistry. 

Now when people talk chemistry in football, it's often associated with the offensive line, or maybe even the secondary, where communication is critical. But it's also important along the defensive line.

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It's easy to forget how many new pieces Detroit introduced to that mix this offseason, including three new defensive tackles — free agents Danny Shelton and Nick Williams along with rookie John Penisini. And the defensive interior is the heart of a good run defense. 

"I think (building chemistry) plays a lot into it," Williams said last week. "Just having a short training camp and not getting snaps with those guys, I think we're starting to settle in and play off each other's strengths and weaknesses. We're starting to learn each other and trust each other that that person will be where they need to be. Once you get those reps in, get those games in, you'll see improvement."

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Unlike a traditional offseason, where those three would have gotten hundreds, if not thousands of practice reps together, plus several preseason series to work out some kinks, those opportunities were significantly reduced or outright eliminated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That's forced the trio to familiarize themselves with each other, and their other new teammates, on the fly. And despite their efforts to cram it all during an abbreviated training camp, things got off to a messy start with Detroit's first two opponents going off for 408 rushing yards. 

"For us, it just made it a little more harder because we are newer guys to the team and we had to quickly learn and gain trust with each other," Shelton said. "I feel like as the season continues on, we're building that trust and that family-like atmosphere where we're playing as one."

The second thing wasn't so much a schematic adjustment as a shift in how the team is utilizing its personnel. After playing with several smaller, faster fronts to counter the mobile quarterbacks the Lions saw to start the year, the team has been loading the front with extra beef the past two weeks. That's included playing Shelton, Williams and Penisini together on early downs. 

That's a 970-pound wall of humanity the Lions are forcing opponents to break through if they want to run up the gut. That grouping has proven problematic and it has been possible to deploy because of Penisini's rapid development and Shelton's flexibility to play a different alignment than what he anticipated when he signed with the Lions this offseason. 

"I love it," Shelton said. "Obviously it's working. For me, I'm able to work at a position I haven't been at in a long time and work my craft and continue to grow as a player, as a student of a game. That's a perfect opportunity for me to grow and work my craft. At the same time, being able to play with guys that play my position on the field, like John and Nick, and just seeing how they're handling different types of blockers, different types of centers, I'm learning from them as well, as they're learning from me."

Where they go from here is a matchup against Indianapolis and dynamic rookie rusher Jonathan Taylor this Sunday. Then it's on to Minnesota's Dalvin Cook, one of the game's elite backs.

Needless to say, we're likely going to figure out in a hurry whether this turnaround is legit. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers