Lions notes: Consistent run defense an emerging bright spot despite winless struggles

Detroit News

Allen Park — One of the key factors in Detroit’s latest stretch of quality defensive performances has been the unit’s ability to limit the damage being done on the ground. Opponents have had a particularly difficult time running up the middle, in part due to some schematic adjustments.

“We’ve played a little more 4-3 these last couple weeks, just matching our personnel and the stuff we have,” defensive line coach Todd Wash explained. “I think (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) has done a really nice job of getting the guys in position to make plays with their abilities. It’s still the same kinda defense, we’re just on an edge a little bit more than we are in a 3-4, with the head-up techniques and stuff like that.”

One player who has been playing particularly well against the run is defensive tackle John Penisini, who has been something of a forgotten man this season after playing nearly 600 snaps as a rookie last season.

“There’s a lot of teams that would love to have Penny,” Wash said. “He is a starting- caliber nose guard. It’s just unfortunate for him that (rookie Alim McNeill) is here. But we do play him a lot. You’ll see, at times, where they’ll both be in the game at the same time.

“We really like what (Penisini) has done,” Wash said. “He was not healthy last year. All the junk they took out of that shoulder, it was amazing he was even able to play last year. I think you’re really seeing who he is. He’s a very good run-stopper. You can’t move his big ole behind. He’s going to continue to get more and more reps.”

But while the Lions are doing a better job against the run up front, that interior group is still struggling to disrupt the pocket in passing situations. Wash puts the blame for that ineffectiveness on himself for not making necessary adjustments as the season has progressed.

“At times, we’re playing a little too tentative,” Wash said. “Early in the year we played some really athletic quarterbacks and we were worried about scrambles. That’s probably on me more than anything, worried about keeping quarterbacks in the pocket instead of beating the guy in front of you. That’s going to be a big point of emphasis that we’ve gotta get on an edge and keep our feet moving forward. ”

Hope for Benson

Three months ago, the Lions attempted to address their need for talent and depth at wide receiver by trading for Trinity Benson. So far, the results couldn’t be much more disappointing.

After catching the Lions eye with eight catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns in fewer than 60 snaps while with the Denver Broncos during the preseason, Benson hasn’t been able to carry that production into the regular season, despite playing nearly four times as many snaps.

In seven games, he’s caught as many passes, eight, for fewer yards (72) and he’s yet to find the end zone.

Still, position coach Antwaan Randle El remains confident good things are on the horizon for the young receiver based on what he’s seen on the practice field.

“You see it show up, you see it happen, you see him making plays over and over again in practice,” Randle El said. “You’ve just got to get it to translate. At the end of the day, that’s what it is. You’ve just gotta get it to translate.

“…I think it’s coming,” Randle El said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

To acquire Benson, the Lions sent the Broncos a fifth- and seventh-round draft choice. Detroit also got a 2023 sixth-rounder back as part of the exchange.

‘Sigh of relief’

Lions safety Tracy Walker expressed relief for the verdict in cousin Ahmaud Arbery‘s murder trail. All three men charged in Arbery’s death were convicted of felony murder last week.

“I called everybody back at home (in Brunswick, Georgia),” Walker said. “I knew it was a party back in my hometown. I ain’t going to lie to you, it was a great day for me. Like I said, man, it’s a sigh of relief. It’s sad that we had to wait this long for action to take place. But at the end of the day, you know, we got to control what we can control. And hey, we’re happy with the verdict.”

Arbery was shot and killed during a struggle after he was stopped by the three men — Greg McMichael, son Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — while jogging. The incident and case garnered national attention after video of the shooting was shared publicly.

Walker, who will honor Arbery through this week’s “My Cause, My Cleats” game, is hopeful the result of this case marks progress for minorities.

“My cousin, unfortunately, he’s not going to be able to come back,” Walker said. “But at the end of the day, there’s more people like my cousin that are still having these problems.

“…It’s a whole lot of Black people, whole lot of colored people — Arab, Mexican, Hispanic, you name it — whole lot of people that’s going through racist subjection. At the end of the day, that’s what I’m promoting. I’m just trying to promote treat everybody equally, see everybody, love everybody for who they is and not the color of their skin, but who they is as a person.”

Injury report

The Lions were down a number of key contributors during Thursday’s practice, including rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who was out with an illness.

Also sidelined were running back D’Andre Swift (shoulder), outside linebacker Trey Flowers (knee), wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge (illness) and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder).

With Swift, he’s not expected to play Sunday against the Vikings. That will leave the Lions to lean on starter Jamaal Williams, while likely asking for more out of backups Godwin Igwebuike and rookie Jermar Jefferson.

Even though he’s started eight of the nine games he’s been active, Williams has been limited to 36% of the team’s offensive snaps, on pace for a career-low for the five-year vet.

As for Igwebuike and Jefferson, they’ve combined for just 11 carries all season, but are also responsible for two of the team’s longest gains on the ground, 28- and 42-yard touchdown runs against Pittsburgh.

“Really feel good with all of them,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “They’ve grown so much since training camp.”

One positive note on the injury front, guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai was back in practice as a full participant after missing the Thanksgiving game with a concussion.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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