Detroit Lions tout run defense despite Eagles’ 216-yard day: ‘Who lined up and ran on us?’

Detroit Free Press

The numbers tell one story, but Detroit Lions linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard saw something totally different on film.

Five days after the Lions allowed 216 yards rushing in a season-opening 38-35 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Sheppard touted his unit’s effort in stopping the Eagles’ rushing attack.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts ran for 90 yards on 17 carries on a series of designed runs and scrambles, while running backs Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott combined for another 126 yards rushing, with 24 coming on Sanders’ game-clinching first down run with 2 minutes to play.

The Eagles also scored four rushing touchdowns of 1, 1, 1 and 2 yards.

“I do not get caught up in statistics, but the facts are the facts,” Sheppard said Friday. “Who’s lined up and run the ball between the tackles on us? The facts are the facts, guys. I’m going to keep it real and I’m going to tell you the truth.”

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The Lions struggled to stop the mobile Hurts, who had four runs of 10-plus yards in the first half, but have gotten improved play from their linebacker unit dating back to the preseason.

The NFL’s 28th-ranked rush defense last year at 135.1 yards per game allowed, the Lions stymied the running games of the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers in preseason games (and joint practices in Indianapolis) but gave up 168 yards on the ground in their exhibition opener against the Atlanta Falcons.

Like the Eagles, the Falcons relied heavily on mobile quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder in the rushing attack.

“We’re talking about the quarterback run, which we understand we have to contain,” Sheppard said. “That’s a new element that’s coming from college football that’s hitting the league by storm. And it is a sucker because they will always be plus-one, and when I say that, you don’t account for the quarterback in the run game (on defense), cause you can’t. You only have 11 players, they have 11, so when a quarterback has the ball they will always be plus-one and whoever the free player is, nine times out of 10 it’s your post safety. So that just comes with the nature of the beast, and next time we play a mobile quarterback we’ll have a plan for that.”

Sheppard said most of Hurts’ yards came when “we’re in coverage with our backs turned,” and noted his unit had few mental errors across the board.

“The running backs, we held them in check up until the last point, which was a critical moment in the game,” Sheppard said. “(Sanders) had a (24)-yarder, which created his (96). But you take that run away and who ran the ball on us? Who lined up and ran on us? And I’m dating back to the preseason. No one.”

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Asked if spying Hurts might have been a better strategy, Sheppard blanched.

“You show me tape where the spy stuff works,” he said. “What you do is you waste a defender when you operate like that and you’re playing prevent defense in a sense, and show me where a spy has tackled Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray in open space. So you know, and to each his own, it’s whatever you believe in. But I’ve seen that get torched on a college level and the NFL level.”

The Lions (0-1) face a more traditional rushing attack Sunday when they host the Washington Commanders (1-0) at Ford Field.

The Commanders ran for 85 yards on 28 carries in their 28-22 comeback opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, when quarterback Carson Wentz attempted 41 passes.

Linebacker Derrick Barnes said Washington’s offense runs through third-year back Antonio Gibson, a 1,000-yard rusher a season ago who had 58 yards on 14 carries in the opener.

“This kid is a legit player,” Sheppard said. “I don’t know why he doesn’t get probably the national spotlight, but this Gibson, this 24’s a real dude, man. And they do a good job with the schematics of marrying what he does well. He’s an excellent zone runner, that’s the scheme that they do. They’re going to try to stretch you out and if he can put his foot in the ground and get vertical, it’s a problem. So it starts there with stopping the run.”

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