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Interior defensive line a strength Lions can build on

The big picture of the Detroit Lions 2018 season was disappointing with the team finishing 6-10 and missing the playoffs.

There were, however, some components that impressed enough to show they can be part of the solution moving forward in an attempt to fix the big picture.

Kerryon Johnson running the football is one. Another is the play of Damon Harrison, Da'Shawn Hand and A'Shawn Robinson along the interior of the Lions' defense. All three players are currently under contract for next season.

The transformation on defense was obvious once the Lions traded for Harrison in October, especially against the run. Before his arrival, the Lions were allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game, 4.93 yards per rush and had allowed six rushes of 20-plus yards in six games.

Those numbers dropped to 92.6 yards per game, 3.63 yards per carry and just four rushes of 20-plus yards over the final eight games with Harrison. The yards per game ranked third best in the NFL, the 20-plus-yard runs also third best and the yards per carry second best over the last two months of the season. Those big guys in the middle were a big factor in that.

Harrison finished as the 10th highest graded interior defender by Pro Football Focus, but Robinson was right behind him at 12. Hand finished as PFF's top graded interior rookie defender.

"The entire defensive line made some improvements," Harrison said Monday.

Harrison also spoke very glowingly about the future of Hand, and everyone saw how Robinson was coming into his own in his third season before suffering an injury in December.

Head coach Matt Patricia has spoken often about how important it is to be sound up the middle of his defense. That starts with the interior of the defensive line, extends to the linebackers and out to the safeties. Those all look to be areas of strength for this defense moving forward.

"I think it's a great example of an area that definitely got stronger in the direction that we wanted it to in trying to build from the ball out," Lions head coach Matt Patricia said Monday.

"With Damon coming in, and A'Shawn obviously being here and having a guy like that next to him, and Hand obviously a young guy, and really even John Atkins, who had to come up and play some football for us, who was another big guy in the middle. You could really see the learning of the technique really pay off as the season went on."

Harrison, Robinson and Hand accounted for 157 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss. Robinson and Hand each missed the last three games of the season.

Looking forward to the 2019 season, Harrison will be better acclimated to his surroundings, Robinson could be in a contract year and Hand will enter a second season where players typically make their biggest leap in development. Every year is a new season and those players will have to continue to work and grow, but this looks to be an area on defense that has the potential to be very good for the Lions next season.

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