DETROIT — The Lions are centering their rebuild on trench warfare. They’re already there on the offensive side with thoroughbreds like Frank Ragnow, Penny Sewell, Taylor Decker and Jonah Jackson. Lately, the defensive side has shown glimmers too.
Then when both units were shoved around on the frozen turf in Carolina last week, Dan Campbell flew back home determined to put this season on the broad shoulders of his big fellas. On Sunday morning, he informed the linemen that they would be announced as a single group during player introductions before their game against Chicago.
Jared Goff didn’t get his name called before kickoff in a must-win game against the Bears. Amon-Ra St. Brown did not get to run out of that tunnel as a starter. Neither did any skill players at all. With the season on the line, the spotlight was on the thicc boys only.
“I’ve never gotten to be the last one out of the tunnel,” said left tackle Taylor Decker, Detroit’s longest-tenured player. “That was pretty cool. We know this staff and this organization puts a premium on the offensive and defensive line.”
They do. And those guys were a huge reason why the Lions hammered Chicago 41-10 to keep their playoff hopes alive heading into the season finale. The offense ran for 265 yards, while the defense got some historic contributions from their rookies.
Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston were 1-2 among all rookies in sacks heading into the game. Both added sacks against Chicago too. Hutchinson got a piece of Justin Fields for a half-sack, plus added his third interception on a unique one-man rush right before halftime.
That’s an NFL record for a rookie lineman, and a club record for any lineman.
He also added a fumble recovery for good measure, his second of the season.
“I’ve never touched the ball this much,” Hutchinson said. “Ball’s on the ground, ball’s in the air, I feel like I got a chance. It’s fun and it’s crazy to hear that stat, but I’m just out here doing my thing.”
His thing has been very good this season. He’s been the best rookie pass rusher in the league, and is on the very short list for defensive rookie of the year heading into the finale.
But he’s not even the most productive rookie pass rusher on his own team.
Houston wasn’t taken until the 217th pick of the draft, and didn’t make his NFL debut until Thanksgiving. On Sunday, he ripped Fields for three sacks, a franchise record for a rookie.
He now has eight sacks on the season, which not only leads all rookies even though he just made his NFL debut about 5 minutes ago, but is a record for any player through his first six games.
All from a guy who didn’t even make the team out of training camp.
“I don’t really know how to answer that right now,” Houston said, when asked by MLive about the record. “It feels great, man. I owe it all to God.”
God, and that wicked bend around the edge.
Houston fell so far in the draft largely because of his size. But once he had a few months to polish up in the Lions system, he used his compact frame and twitchy athleticism to his advantage by staying so low to the ground that these big, hulking offensive tackles are having all kinds of issues matching up with him. .
The Lions started seeing it in practice around October and especially November. Once they saw him dusting Sewell and Decker, they knew he was ready to be unleashed on Thanksgiving. Then he needed just three snaps to take down Josh Allen twice.
“My first ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment had to be one-on-one reps in practice,” defensive tackle Alim McNeill said. “I can’t remember the week, but Houston wasn’t up yet, wasn’t playing yet. And he hit some outside move, like one of those stutter moves that he’s been hitting lately, and he hit it. I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’
“Next week, he got pulled up. Now Houston is a problem.”
Yeah, no kidding.
Just imagine being McNeill these days. He was selected in the third round of last year’s draft to be the anchor of Detroit’s defensive front. Now he’s got Houston leading all rookies in sacks on one end, Hutchinson leading all other rookies in sacks on the other end, while second-round pick Josh Paschal just added his first two NFL sacks alongside him against Chicago.
Paschal and Houston are the first pair of Lions rookies to each have multiple sacks in a single game. Three Lions rookies now have multi-sack games this season, which — and you’re never going to believe this — is also a franchise record.
Then there’s sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez starting capably at linebacker, and third-round pick Kerby Joseph raking in an NFC defensive player of the week award along the way at safety. At all levels of the defense are rookies balling out.
The present looks good, while the future looks brighter than ever.
“That’s what’s scary, is the future,” McNeill said. “This is their first year, man. They just got onto campus, and they’re balling. It’s crazy. Just crazy. When talking to them, hanging with them, you wouldn’t know they’re rookies or the typical rookie. They act like they’ve been here before, and they play like they’ve been here before too. It’s crazy. It’s really amazing to see.”
All told, Lions rookies have accounted for 18.5 sacks this season. That’s just a half-sack off the all-time record heading into the season finale. Throw in what they have going on in the offensive trenches, and a team that wants to win up front, well, is.
“(We want) our identity to be a physical, tough, hard-nosed, relentless, resilient team,” Campbell said. “It all starts with the O-line, D-line. So I wanted to make sure that got acknowledged for the last one here.”
Consider it acknowledged.
Just ask Justin Fields.