Allen Park — The starting point for any good NFL defense is an ability to stop the run, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn the Detroit Lions finished 29th in rushing yards per game and 30th in yards per carry allowed a season ago.
As the team spent the offseason trying to orchestrate a turnaround for a defense that ranked dead-last overall in 2022, the focus on improving the ground game always remained a top focus.
“If you want to be a good defense, you have to stop the run and make a team one-dimensional,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said during the team’s mandatory minicamp in early June.
After last week’s victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, when the world was focusing on how the Lions managed to slow down quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the league’s reigning MVP, just enough, Campbell highlighted the work his group did bottling up running back Isiah Pacheco. Remember, he had racked up nearly 200 yards, while averaging 5.3 yards per carry, during the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run a year earlier.
Outside of a couple of occasions where Mahomes broke contain on scrambles, the Lions did a fantastic job slowing down the Chiefs’ ground game. Between Pacheco, backfield complement Clyde Edwards-Helaire and a couple of gadget handoffs to receivers, the Lions limited the opposition to an average gain of 2.6 yards on 17 carries, with a long of 7 yards. That stat was critical to keeping the high-octane opponent to 20 points in the road victory.
But for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, it was less about the numbers and more about the attitude the Lions played with, embodying the identity he’s envisioned for the unit.
“I think our identity showed up, for the most part, and I tell our guys this, ‘Listen, the stats are the stats, but if our identity shows up, it takes care of everything,'” Glenn said. “We play with maximum effort. … I thought we were physical, that we were violent, especially in the secondary, and I thought we attacked the football. Now, we didn’t come away with as many balls we want as far as interceptions and punch-outs — we did get one — but to me, that’s what really showed up.
“The stats are the stats, but like I tell our guys, if we do those things, if we understand that we do those things, those three things, man, the stats are going to take care of itself and those guys did that.”
Detroit’s ability to stop the run will be put to the test again this week. And if the past two years are any indicator, the Seattle Seahawks will offer a clearer barometer of how much improvement has been made. In two meetings against this foe, they’ve racked up exactly 500 rushing yards, fueling scoring outbursts of 51 and 48 points.
“I know this head coach (Pete Carroll) well and the one thing that they’re going to try to do, they’re going to try to run the ball,” Glenn said. “I mean that’s his background. That’s who he is. So, the same thing that I talked about last week we’re going to have to do this week, is we’re going to have to really commit to stopping the run because they will run you out of the stadium if you don’t.”
And Seattle will arguably be even more dependent on their ground game this week, given both of the team’s starting offensive tackles are expected to miss the contest. Right tackle Abe Lucas was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday, while left tackle Charles Cross missed practice because of a sprained big toe.
Seattle ranked in the top 10 last season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, primarily behind productive rookie Kenneth Walker III, who ran for 1,050 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games.
“He’s a really good back,” Glenn said. “He’s explosive. I’ll tell you, these jump-cuts that he’s able to make within that running game, I mean, it’s pretty special. So, our guys know it’s a challenge. It is. And again, with this head coach knowing what he wants to do, we have to be ready for it.”