O'HARA: Jason Jones becomes defensive line's new 'answer man'

Posted May 25, 2015

The offseason turnover on the defensive line has strengthened Jason Jones’ leadership position.

Jason Jones can reflect back to when he was a rookie defensive lineman on the Tennessee Titans who asked the veterans on his unit questions about making the transition from college football to playing in the NFL.

“I asked a lot of questions,” Jones said the other day. “The playbook. What do I need to do for my body? What do I need to get on the field?”

Jason JonesDE Jason Jones (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Jones is an example of how time changes a player’s role. As he prepares for the start of his eighth pro season and third with the Lions, Jones has become the answer man among the Lions’ defensive linemen.

The offseason turnover that saw Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley depart as free agents and management choose not to re-sign C.J. Mosley has strengthened Jones’ leadership position.

Among the defensive linemen, only Haloti Ngata and Darryl Tapp have been in the NFL longer. Both are going into their 10th pro seasons. Ziggy Ansash and Devin Taylor were rookies in 2012 when Jones came to the Lions as a free agent after four seasons with the Titans and one with the Seahawks.

The fact that Jones grew up in Metro Detroit and played at Southfield Lathrup High and Eastern Michigan makes him a valuable resource for new players to the Lions seeking guidance. Young players such as rookie defensive tackle Gabe Wright want to know the basics on how to break in to the NFL and start a career. Veterans such as Ngata are looking for places to live that are suited to their families.

As gradual as his career’s progression may have been, Jones was struck recently when he considered the role reversal he has undergone in eight years. He leaned on Kyle Vanden Bosch, Javon Kearse and other veterans when he broke in with the Titans. Now he’s the one giving advice.

“It’s surreal for me,” said Jones, who turned 29 on Sunday. “I can remember my first day coming to rookie minicamp in Tennessee and not knowing too much of anything. Being in my eighth year, I’m more of a leader, more of a mentor to some of those guys who actually look up to me and ask questions.

“It’s not always on football. It’s off-the-field things. Where to live, money – all kinds of things. My first year, my eyes were wide open. I didn’t know what to expect.

“I had these guys coaching me up. It kind of got easy for me to be in the league. Now I’m in a position to help some of the younger guys.”

Wright had a more basic question.

“He just asked me, ‘Where do I get my haircut?’” Jones said. “I’m going to get him hooked up with my barber.”

The Lions don’t have Jones on the roster to be a tour guide or to give tips on grooming habits. He’s a valuable, versatile player on the defensive line. He starts at left end in the base 4-3 defense and often moves inside to tackle on passing downs to rush the quarterback.

His 2013 season was limited to three games because of a knee injury, but Jones started all 16 last year and tied his career high with five sacks.

Jones played particularly well late in the season, as the Lions won four of their last five games to make the playoffs as a wild card with an 11-5 record. In the last four games, he had three sacks, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal.

Jones contributed a defensive hat trick – sack, forced fumble and blocked field goal – in the span of three plays to help the Lions to a critical 16-14 victory over the Vikings in Game 14.

The Vikings had a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter and had first and goal at the seven with a chance to extend the lead with a field goal or touchdown. It was a crucial point in the game. A field goal – which seemed certain – would have given the Vikings a four-point lead and forced the Lions to respond with a touchdown or two field goals to go ahead.

On second down, Jones sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and forced a fumble that the Vikings recovered at the 18 for a 10-yard loss. After a short gain on third down, the Vikings tried a 26-yard field goal that Jones blocked.

That kept the deficit at one point – instead of four or eight with a Vikings field goal or touchdown – and let the Lions win the game on Matt Prater’s 33-yard field goal with 3:48 left.

“That was a series where everything kind of went my way,” Jones said. “That’s kind of what they brought me here for. I know I can make big plays. They needed somebody to step up at that time.

“Those are the type of plays that help you win games. If that play (the blocked kick) doesn’t happen, it’s a complete different scenario for our offense – for our whole team.”

Because of free-agency, the one constant in the NFL is change, and the Lions’ defensive line has undergone a dramatic change since the end of last year.

With Suh, Fairley and Mosley gone, the Lions have lost two starters and a primary backup at tackle. The projected starters at tackle are Ngata, acquired in a trade with Baltimore, and Tyrunn Walker, signed as a restricted free agent. Behind them are Wright and Corey Wooton, who recently signed as a free agent.

The Lions’ defense ranked second overall last year and first against the run, yielding an average of 69.3 yards per game.

Jones does not expect the defense to lose its identity or any effectiveness because of the turnover up front.

“It’s not going to change this year,” Jones said. “We lost Suh. We lost Fairley. We lost C.J. Three guys who were pivotal for our defense. With the room we’ve got, our mentality, I see no drop off.

“We could be just as good as last year.”