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Defensive line stepped up to coach's challenge in Indianapolis

There's a sign in Detroit's defensive line room that reads: 'You have to earn the right to rush the passer.'

Defensive line coach Todd Wash said it's intended to be a clear reminder that stopping the run comes first. The Lions ranked 28th in the NFL against the run last year, allowing on average 135.1 yards per game. Five times Detroit's defense allowed more than 180 rushing yards to an opponent in a game – Chicago (188), Philadelphia (236), Cleveland (184), Denver (184) and Seattle (265). All five were losses.

Wash said he challenged the defensive line heading into joint practices in Indianapolis with the Colts last week to be better than they were the first few weeks of training camp and in the first preseason game against Atlanta (allowed 168 rushing yards and 5.8 average).

The unit responded by playing really well in the joint practices against a Colts' offense that was second in the NFL in rushing last year. Then the backups allowed just 30 rushing yards in Saturday's preseason game. After the game, head coach Dan Campbell said he thought the defensive line was the most consistent position groups during the week in Indy.

That's good to hear, and we'll get one more look at the starters upfront on defense in Sunday's preseason finale in Pittsburgh before the team shifts into roster molding and regular-season preparations. Campbell said the expectation is for the starters to play about a half against the Steelers.

It's no secret Detroit has to be better upfront (also ranked 30th in sacks last season) if this defense is going to be better in 2022.

The addition of No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson has made an immediate impact. Hutchinson can rush the passer and set the edge in the run game. He's got a relentless motor, and Wash said he's one of the smartest and most astute studiers he's ever been around as a rookie. That's a good sign for that unit.

The Lions also re-signed Charles Harris, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season. Harris has had a strong camp.

"I have a ton of respect for him," veteran left tackle Taylor Decker said Monday of Harris, who he goes up against every day in practice. "Super relentless player. Same guy every single day."

Second-year defensive lineman Alim McNeill has also had a nice camp, and the Lions are experimenting with him more and more at the three-technique to utilize his athleticism. He was really good in the joint practices last week against good competition from the Colts.

Those three join veteran Michael Brockers as the expected staring front for Detroit's defense.

We haven't seen much of second-year defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike (back/hip) or rookie Josh Paschal (sports hernia), who were expected to play big roles but have been sidelined by injuries. Wash admitted it hasn't been ideal for Onwuzurike to miss as much time as he has in camp. The hope is Onwuzurike is back at practice sooner rather than later. Paschal could start the season on Reserve/PUP and miss at least the first four games.

View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Monday, August 22, 2022.

The Lions have gotten good performances from some reserve guys up front. Austin Bryant comes to mind first. He's been a terror all camp as a pass rusher, and is trending toward a key reserve role on the edge.

Lions general manager Brad Holmes spent significant resources adding talent and depth to Detroit's defensive front. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and Wash changed up their schemes upfront to be more aggressive and hopefully more disruptive. Wash explained the change in scheme as a happy medium between an attack and react front.

The Lions know if they're going to take significant steps forward on defense, it has to start with the big guys up front. It was good to see the d-line have the two good days they did against the Colts in joint practices. The hope is they continue the upward trend right into Week 1 of the regular season when the Lions welcome Philadelphia at Ford Field.

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