Detroit Lions: Veterans key to defensive turnaround
By Max Gerber
Once considered to be the weakest unit on the Detroit Lions, the defensive line has had a huge turnaround thanks to veteran leadership in the position group.
Entering the 2018 season, the Detroit Lions‘ interior defensive line did not look promising. The unit had struggled for several seasons, and this season looked like it would be more of the same. For too long, it has been the same issue with this defensive line: no ability to defend against the run or create pressure on the opposing quarterback.
After letting veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata go in free agency, the Lions did not do much to bolster the position. The team brought in nose tackle and former first-round pick Sylvester Williams in the first week of free agency and did not make any more big moves in free agency until late-July when they signed defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois.
The team’s only other major addition to their defensive tackle group was defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand, who they selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Not much was expected from Hand at the start of the season, as he was buried on the depth chart behind Jean Francois, Williams, and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson.
Robinson, a starter for the last few seasons, was an unexpected healthy scratch in Week 1. Since then, the former second-round pick out of Alabama has found his way back into the starting rotation primarily as a run defender with 44 tackles, three for a loss of yardage, and 1.0 sacks on the season.
Williams ended up being a disappointing free agent signing for Detroit. A true nose tackle, he was expected to come in and help improve the run defense. This was not the case. Williams had only six tackles in his short time on the team. His tenure as a Lion was cut short when the team made a big trade for his replacement.
The Detroit Lions traded away a fifth-round pick for All-Pro nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison. Harrison has been a consistent playmaker against the run in his career, and he continued to perform at an elite level for his new team. In just seven games as a Lion, the seven-year NFL veteran has already tallied 3.5 sacks and 37 tackles.
Jean Francois and Harrison can be credited for the increase in the performance of the Lions’ defensive line. The two have a combined 17 seasons under their belts; experience which has been extremely beneficial for their younger teammates.
Veteran leadership in the NFL is vital to a team’s success. With Harrison and Jean Francois helping out Hand and Robinson, the Lions’ defensive line became a force to reckon with. Before trading for Harrison, Detroit was allowing the fourth-most rushing yards per game. In their last three games, against some of the league’s best running backs including Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Jordan Howard, and Tarik Cohen, the Lions have only allowed an average of 82.7 rushing yards a game, fifth-best in the league.
Hand has had himself a breakout season in his rookie year, consistently earning praise from Pro Football Focus for his ability to defend against the run. Finding his way to the starting defensive line as the season progressed, the fourth-round pick has exceeded expectations and has earned a place on this team for years to come.
Detroit’s four defensive tackles now have a combined 127 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles.
The additions of Harrison and Jean Francois have been two of the best transactions made by the Detroit Lions’ front office this season. With a young rising star in Da’Shawn Hand and a resurgence from A’Shawn Robinson, it is clear that the veteran presence in the position group has been beneficial to the young defensive lineman.