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Reality check for once hopeful Lions
Not much has gone right for the Detroit Lions this year. They head into this week's game against the Arizona Cardinals with a 4-8 record and next to no chance of making the playoffs.
But as the Lions begin to take stock for 2019 and beyond, they feel good about an interior defensive line that's quietly become a strength and might soon be one of the best in the NFL.
The Lions fortified their defensive line in October when they traded a fifth-round draft pick to the New York Giants for nose tackle Damon Harrison.
Harrison has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Detroit. He has 31 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble in six games, and more important has helped bring out the best in emerging young tackles A'Shawn Robinson and Da'Shawn Hand.
"(He's) really been very healthy for that room and has really kind of helped that unit grow quite a bit," Lions HEAD coach Matt Patricia said. "And some of the things that we talked about ... as far as some of the improvement that we've seen has really been attributed to some of that stuff on the front with those guys on the D-line and the linebackers and kind of that unit working together. So I just think he's been great. I think we've obviously got a long way to go and all that, but for a guy in that situation, it's never easy and I think he's done a great job."
While Harrison's presence is the biggest reason for the Lions' improved play up front, it's Robinson and Hand who give the group upside.
Robinson, in his third season out of Alabama, has shined as a run-stuffer playing next to Harrison, while Hand, a rookie fourth-round pick and Robinson's former teammate with the Crimson Tide, is the best interior pass rusher of the trio.
"You can see the improvement from Week 1 to now, what type of defensive linemen they were," veteran defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. "They were like that already, they just had to understand our defense. Once they did, now (they're) key components (of) our D-line. At one point, people were worried about it. Now, I think people really don't even talk about our D-line anymore."
The Lions will be in the market for a pass-rushing right end to replace Ziggy Ansah this offseason, but in Harrison, Hand and Robinson - all signed through at least next year - they have the type of beef Patricia wants on the interior of his defense.
Jean Francois joked that Harrison and Robinson take up "four or five blockers" by themselves because of their sheer size, but he's dead serious when he says that he believes Robinson is on his way to being a future star.
"I'm not tooting his horn or trying to make him feel good, but he'll probably be one of the top three run defenders or D-linemen in the league," Jean Francois said. "He's that special that he can do it. It's just now he just has to finish this season out great, fourth year, now you have to make that big leap. Now you got to make that improvement and be like the D-lineman that everybody knows he's capable of being."
SERIES HISTORY: 66th regular-season meeting. Lions lead series, 32-28-5, but have not won in Arizona since 1993. One memorable game in this series came in 2003, when Anquan Boldin (10 catches, 217 yards, two touchdowns) outdueled Charles Rogers (two touchdowns) in a battle of rookie receivers but the Lions won, 42-24.