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09/07/12Author: Justin Rogers - MLive

Lions confident run defense will improve in 2012

Lions confident run defense will improve in 2012

ALLEN PARK -- For as much hand-wringing as there has been about the Detroit Lions' inability to consistently run the football last season, the team's struggles  stopping the run is of equal concern.

In 2011, the Lions finished 31st in the NFL, allowing opponents to average 5.0 yards per carry.

As far as the front seven goes, all the key players from last season have returned. The starting linebackers are the same, as are the top eight in the defensive line rotation. With that fact in mind, it's fair to question how the team expects to improve against the run.

Defensive end Cliff Avril believes the group's continuity is actually a significant advantage.

"We've laid the foundation getting to know each other and see how each other plays," Avril said. "Now it's about going out there, playing, and not making the same mistakes. If you had a new guy coming in, he'd probably make the same mistakes we made last year."

Teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch agrees, saying that stopping the run is a more refined skill than rushing the passer.

"Football, especially run stuff, it's about repetition," Vanden Bosch said. "It's about seeing things. It's about experience. You can probably, if you have athletic ability,  come into this league and be a good pass rusher and affect the passing game. But it's difficult to play the run schemes, be in your gap, and be able to recognize blocks."

The second wave of Lions' run defense, the linebackers, had little time to gel last season. In a lockout-shortened offseason, the team signed free agents Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, while moving DeAndre Levy to the outside after two seasons in the middle.

Durant and Tulloch explained that the year of experience together has been critical in learning not only how to play with each other, but how to play off of the defensive linemen directly in front of them in the Lions' aggressive, one-gap scheme.

"They play off us, which is awesome," Avril said. "They know maybe I'll work the inside move and they'll know how to play off me. It's great to have that foundation and have those guys behind us."

Coach Jim Schwartz believes the secondary needs to step up their role in run support as well.

"Our improvement needs to be in limiting long runs," Schwartz said. "We were fine as far as the run game went except for the long runs. There was way too many of those big chunks. We have to do a better job of plugging stuff up front, but more importantly, tackling, or being in the right spots, in our secondary. That's where those averages went way up in the run game."

The Lions gave up 16 runs of 20 yards or more in 2011 and six of at least 40 yards. Both of those numbers ranked in the bottom five in the NFL.

Asked if he was concerned the team could be starting four new players in the secondary to start the season, Schwartz quipped, "Maybe they'll be better."

Maybe they will. We'll get a good idea on Sunday when the Lions attempt to stop St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson, one of the NFL's premier feature backs over the past eight seasons.

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