The Detroit Lions linebackers, including Justin Durant, show their gang-tackling skills against the New England Patriots.
The 2008 Detroit Lions were the worst run defense in NFL history. In an average game they allowed 32 points and 172 rushing yards. Opposing tailbacks rolled through them for an average of 5.1 yards per carry. All told, the 2008 Lions surrendered a whopping 2,754 yards on the ground. Per Football Outsiders, their adjusted run-stopping Defensive Value Over Average was the second-worst they've recorded since 1992. Their 136.6 Pro Football Focus rush defense grade is the worst PFF has ever assigned.
Though the Lions run defense improved from there, it wasn't by much. They allowed 2,025 and 1,999 yards in 2009 and 2010, respectively, at about a 4.5 yard per carry average.
Justin Durant was brought in to help change all that.
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Durant boasts impressive physical tools and impressive run-stopping skills. In 2010, PFF graded the 26-year-old as the third-best run stopping 4-3 OLB in the NFL. So, what attracted a talented young run-stopper to a team that's been in the bottom 10 of rushing defense every year since 2005?
"Well I looked and saw that they had one of the best D-lines," Durant told me. "They had a lot of great players. They had a great corps of younger guys, and I felt like they were on the rise. When I first realized I was going to be a free agent, I told my agent Detroit was my first choice."
I asked Durant what he saw as his role in the Lions defense.
"To be a run-stuffer," he answered, "and to be a coverage guy." Durant explained the disruptive defensive linemen draw most of the blockers' attention. "They're going to force double-teams a lot. If they're getting double-teams, my job is to come in after that and clean up."
Who will lead the Lions in tackles against the Vikings?
When Durant was signed, many Lions fans didn't know much about his game. When I watch Durant play, he has an amazing knack for getting to the ball carrier. I asked him to describe the way he plays the game.
"I think I have decent instincts and a nose for the ball. I play hard every snap, going as hard as possible. I think that I can play the run and the pass pretty well," he said.
Emblematic of the new attitude this Lions defense has, Durant is eager for teams to test him.
"I like when teams try to run it a little more," he said, "because I can get a little more tackles."
Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is notoriously fond of blitzing. Back in 2009 Jim Schwartz told Detroit radio station WRIF that pass-rushing OLB Julian Peterson would be the prototype for a Lions outside linebacker. Not only does Durant not fit that mold, we've seen almost no blitzes called in 2011. I jokingly asked Durant if Gun has gone soft on us.
"Definitely not," he said. "I think that the lack of blitzes just shows the type of defensive line we have. When you can get pressure with just four guys, it's not necessary for you to send everybody all the time. It just shows the caliber of players up front."
He wasn't done praising the defensive line. "The defensive line has been getting after the quarterback. Not just getting sacks all the time, but getting pressure in his face, pushing the pocket, and always making the quarterback have a tougher throw."
I asked Durant if the Lions' improvement in pass defense comes from being able to drop seven back in coverage, or the addition of players such as himself and new cornerback Eric Wright. "I think it's a combination," he said. "We have some great guys in the secondary playing a lot of man-to-man coverage, and they've been covering their butts off. They're playing at a high level."
Of course, I had to ask how the Lions' suddenly-stout defense plans to stop the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson on Sunday. Peterson, a four-time All-Pro in four seasons in the NFL, already has 218 yards and two touchdowns and is covering ground at a 5.2 yards per carry clip.
"He breaks a lot of tackles," Durant said. "He runs hard, he's fast. We're going to have to try to be disciplined in our assignments and make sure everybody gets to the ball. We need to clean up if someone misses a tackle, or isn't in their gap, we all just have to rally together and gang tackle."
I noted that discipline seemed to be lacking in the early stages of the Kansas City game. The Chiefs turned several end-around runs into long gainers because the Lions over-pursued. "We just made a couple mistakes," said Durant.
"We realized what we did as soon as it happened, and we just tightened it up after that." Durant told me the Lions make sure not to finger-point or argue in the wake of mistakes, just focus on correcting the issue and playing at the level they expect.
The Lions are favored to win this Sunday, which marks the first time they've been road favorites in Minnesota in 30 years. I asked Durant if this early success changes their approach, to come in with expectations as opposed to underdogs with something to prove.
""We have the same mindset at all times," he said. "We're just going to go out and prepare each and every week the same way, to go out an get a victory. We don't wanna change anything about the way we play the game."