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Lions embracing Penei Sewell's emotion, unwillingness to back down from anyone

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — If you've been following Detroit Lions news on social media this week, you almost certainly saw the overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans to Penei Sewell mixing it up with Los Angeles Rams superstar defensive lineman Aaron Donald after a play last Sunday. 

On the play, Sewell locked his grip onto the chest of Donald and wouldn't let go, even after the whistle. It was an impressively dominant rep for the rookie, against the league's most dominant defender, and Donald took exception to it. 

Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) was words with Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell during the first half last Sunday at SoFi Stadium.

Some words were exchanged, a few small shoves, but the biggest takeaway from the moment is Detroit's 21-year-old offensive tackle isn't going to be pushed around by anyone, even one of the league's most-feared players. 

“I thought it was cool to see," Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said with a smile. "He didn’t back down."

Of course, those who have been watching Sewell closely throughout his debut season, or even back to his time at the University of Oregon, have seen this side of him week in and week out. Whether he's standing up for himself or defending a teammate, Sewell is frequently seen jawing with an opponent or getting in a little post-whistle shove.

It's hardly surprising to see veterans mess with the rookie, attempting to rattle his confidence. And, in most instances, Sewell is just responding to something another player did or said. But he's not just some innocent kid out there. He's not afraid to take the fight to an opponent, whether it's with his physicality or a little trash talk, if the situation calls for it.

"For me, I just go out there and play with a lot of passion and whatever happens, happens," Sewell said. "If that leads to chirping — and I guess everyone wants to try to get into the rookie's head — I'm going to match that energy and go even further than that."

More: Lions film review: Breaking down rookie Penei Sewell's performance vs. Rams

Sewell's approach is an interesting contrast to teammate Frank Ragnow, one of the league's dominant centers, who is also one of the nicest players in the NFL. He's known to walk away from any hint of unnecessary confrontation, and it's why he was the Lions' nominee for the Art Rooney Award for sportsmanship last season. 

But a fanbase always has a soft spot for physical pot-stirrers, particularly Detroit, which embraced the "Bad Boys" Pistons teams from the late 80's and early 90's that built a brand around that attitude. 

In the NFL, a player obviously has to be careful in these situations. It's often the one who reacts that draws the penalty flag, but so far, Sewell has avoided a dreaded unsportsmanlike conduct infraction that would cost his team 15 yards.

Impressively, given his age and lack of experience, he seems to have a good sense of where the line is and how he can go right up to it without going over. 

“Football is an emotional game and you have to play this game with the emotions," Lynn said. "I love the way he plays and he has the self-discipline about him where he doesn’t go overboard. That’s the most important thing. As long as you can control it and have that discipline to stay within the rules of the game, I love the emotions.” 

The interaction with Donald also happened to come in the midst of Sewell's best performance of his inaugural season. After a shaky stretch, where he gave up a few sacks, including two that resulted in a fumble, he's bouncing back in impressive fashion, showcasing the promising talent that made him the No. 7 overall pick in this past draft

Sewell's biggest jumps have come with his technique, something that's required steady development as he's adjusted to the skill of NFL caliber pass rushers. 

"The one thing I could really lock into, that I've been working on and still continuing to work on is my hands and being really precise with them," he said. "When I say that, sometimes mediocre hand placement could get the job done, but in this league you got to be real precise. You got to lock in on that and then just go from there."

Sewell experienced that in one of his few bad snaps against the Rams, when he shot his hands too low and edge rusher Terrell Lewis effortlessly swatted them away to get around the offensive tackle and contribute on a sack of quarterback Jared Goff. 

Again, Sewell's likely not going to win every rep in a game any time soon, but he's losing fewer and fewer as the season progresses, and that's what the Lions had hoped to see. 

“You’re going to have those every now and then from a rookie," Lynn said. "He’s still learning, but I love the way he stepped up last week, the way he competed. Got a little physical out there with him and Aaron Donald a little bit, but I like that about him. Kid has a lot of fight, man.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers