Detroit Lions: NFC North interior defensive line preview

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 19: A'Shawn Robinson #91 of the Detroit Lions celebrates after defeating the Chicago Bears 27-24 at Soldier Field on November 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 19: A'Shawn Robinson #91 of the Detroit Lions celebrates after defeating the Chicago Bears 27-24 at Soldier Field on November 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Leading up to NFL training camps, SideLion Report will preview each position group for the Detroit Lions, and compare it with the same unit from the rest of the NFC North. Today, we look at the interior defensive line.

For NFL fans, the dark days of the NFL season are upon us. Little news and few developments will arise until the start of training camps in late July. What better time for our loyal readers to prime themselves for the upcoming season than with our positional previews?

In this series, we will focus on each position group for the Detroit Lions, as well as their divisional rivals in the NFC North. It’s an exercise that NFL head coaches and executives carry out frequently, particularly against teams that they will see multiple times a year.

Today, we’ll focus on interior defensive linemen. (Defensive ends are placed into the upcoming edge defender category).

Detroit Lions

Key returning players: Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, Da’Shawn Hand

New additions: P.J. Johnson (Rookie), Darius Kilgo

Key losses: Ricky Jean-François

Undoubtedly one of the strongest units on the team, the Detroit Lions boast a versatile and stout defensive interior. Health and contractual concerns aside, they should be a top run-stopping unit in 2019.

The Lions went from being one of the league’s poorest run defenses to one of the best after the midseason acquisition of tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison from the New York Giants. Harrison’s impact was indisputable; the Lions finished the season with the league’s 10th fewest rushing yards allowed, after allowing an average of over 139 yards on the ground in their first six games of 2018.

Harrison’s arrival seemed to have an uplifting affect on his fellow interior linemen as well. A’Shawn Robinson had a breakout campaign in his third season, and is poised for more success in a contract year. Rookie Da’Shawn Hand developed quickly, and his versatility will continue to be an important tool in head coach Matt Patricia’s complex defense.

Assuming Harrison and the Lions are able to overcome his current contractual impasse, expect Harrison to be a fixture on early downs for Detroit once again. In sets with three down-linemen, the Lions should be at an advantage on many downs, as each of Robinson, Harrison and Hand are adept at controlling two gaps and moving laterally.

Pass rush and quarterback pressure isn’t necessarily a strength of this crew, as no one currently on the roster among interior linemen has ever recorded more than 3.5 sacks in a single season. However, this group’s main role will be filling gaps and opening holes for the Lions’ edge rushers and linebackers to make plays up front and behind the line of scrimmage.

The only significant loss from this group is veteran Ricky Jean-François who served as an important liaison between players from the previous regime and newcomers to Patricia’s style and expectations. Jean-François played under Patricia with the New England Patriots from in 2017.

Jean-François’ production was minimal in 2018, but his experience and influence seems to have left a positive mark on the whole unit. It’s possible that he is brought back later in the summer should an injury occur, or further mentorship be needed.

The Lions added a handful of players in the draft and in free agency to fill out the depth chart on the interior. Seventh round selection P.J. Johnson comes to Detroit as another massive body, and he will serve as an understudy to Harrison, should he make the roster.

Journeyman Darius Kilgo spent time in 2016 and 2017 shuttling between the practice squad and the 53-man roster for the Patriots, though he never appeared in a regular season game for them. He appeared in 11 games for the Tennessee Titans in 2018 under former another former Patriot, head coach Mike Vrabel. His familiarity with the system could help him in his quest to make the Lions’ roster.

This is certainly a strong point on the Lions’ roster, and in the division. They are hoping to build on last season’s growth within the unit, a wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines on Sundays.