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Lions' anonymous D shows signs of dominance, hope for future

DETROIT -- They don’t have the standout names. They are a group that, for the most part, is pretty anonymous. The defense -- particularly the defensive line -- spent a good portion of the preseason getting criticized.

There were questions about how the Detroit Lions were going to find a pass rush beyond Ezekiel Ansah. There were questions about how the Lions, minus said pass rush, would improve a pass defense that allowed an NFL-record completion percentage last season.

And there were questions about the overall effectiveness of a group that, frankly, is overshadowed by Detroit’s offense.

“As a defense, no one really knows about us too much, you know,” defensive end Anthony Zettel said. “On paper, we don’t look too extraordinary, but we just got a lot of tough guys and team camaraderie, and stuff is extraordinary this year.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction and got to get better every week. I just love playing with these guys.”

That anonymity might change after Sunday, after the Lions defense had stretches of dominance against Arizona. The Lions held the Cardinals without an offensive touchdown until midway through the third quarter.

A lot of that started on the Detroit defensive line, a group of fairly unknown players who took their individual strengths to form a more cohesive unit. This isn’t exactly the No Name Defense of the 1970s Miami Dolphins that was one of the best in the league, but it’s one that fits the mold of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin quite well.

Since Austin has been in Detroit, one of his strengths has been putting together productive units out of players who weren’t stars. In the past, he had to do it because of in-season injuries. This year, at least on the defensive line, it seems like that was part of the strategy.

“We don’t have five or 10 Ziggys,” Zettel said of Ansah. “But we have a bunch of tough dudes. Anytime you’re out there with guys that want to play together, great things can happen.”

Great things did happen for the Lions defense. The secondary was dominant, with three interceptions and nine pass breakups -- including three from nickel corner Quandre Diggs, whose starting gig was in question earlier this preseason.

They turned Carson Palmer into a 56.3 percent passer, turned David Johnson into an average rusher and forced Larry Fitzgerald into catching less than half of his 13 targets.

And they understood some of that early criticism, particularly on the defensive line. A clear need after last season, the Lions added two defensive linemen -- Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington -- without high sack numbers. They didn’t draft a defensive lineman until the sixth round. Two rotation players, Armonty Bryant and Khyri Thornton, were suspended for four and six games, respectively, to start the year. And the Lions lost Kerry Hyder, Brandon Copeland and Jordan Hill to season-ending injuries.

So there was reason for doubt.

“I mean, just from the standpoint [that] we didn’t have any big names come in. I wasn’t a high-level sack guy. Corn wasn’t,” Spence said. “But from working with these guys in camp, we knew internally what we had, so it’s getting out here on Sundays and showing how we got after Carson.

“Granted, we didn’t get the sack numbers we’d like, but we got the hits, we got the disruptions, we got the turnovers, so it’s hand-in-hand. The secondary, they had a great game because we played great up front.”

A defense that struggled to force turnovers last year had four against the Cardinals. A group that had questions about the pass rush managed only one sack but created havoc and pressure around Carson Palmer. That pressure led to at least one of Detroit’s three interceptions.

And a defense that had a top goal of stopping Johnson did that for the most part, holding him to 23 yards rushing before he left the game with an injury in the second half.

So the criticism they heard, this was their first chance to change it.

“I wouldn’t say it bothered [us],” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “I feel like this is a great, cohesive group. The guys in here play for each other, so I knew for a fact that guys wanted to play for each other and we wanted to go out and prove that we [are] a top defense, so yeah.”

For a week at least, the Lions looked like they might have one. And if Detroit is able to sustain that, it could portend good things -- or, as Zettel put it, great things -- the rest of the season.