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The Detroit Lions have the best run defense in the NFL over the season’s past three weeks. And while that’s an incredibly small sample size to draw any conclusions from, anyone who watched the Lions play in the season’s first two months knows how incredible that turnaround is.

The Lions have allowed an average of 49.3 yards rushing in their past three games, nearly 100 yards less than they allowed over the season’s first nine weeks (142.5).

And they’ve done it while playing against two of the league’s best rushing offenses. Both the Chicago Bears, who the Lions have played twice since Nov. 11, and Carolina Panthers rank in the top half of the NFL in rushing yards and attempts.

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So what’s behind the Lions’ defensive resurgence against the run? Three things seem to be at play.

First, the Lions have plugged a leaky defense that was prone to giving up big plays. In the season’s first eight games, the Lions allowed five rushes over 40 yards. In the past three, they haven’t allowed a run longer than 10 yards.

“You look at a lot of the games that we played in, we’ve been playing great in the run game and then we’ll give up one run that’d be 60 yards, 70 yards and it just kills all the averages,” safety Glover Quin said. “We’ve been playing solid run defense for a while, it’s just these last few weeks we haven’t given up any big runs and now you see what it could have been.”

The Lions have eliminated big plays thanks to better penetration up front, better tackling in the back seven and more of a comfort level with the defense overall.

Quin and others say it took a while to get adjusted to first-year coach Matt Patricia’s defense, and defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said that’s starting to show in the run game.

“Trusting in your eyes and trust in yourself,” Jean Francois said. “Stop second-guessing yourself. I think that’s what a lot of us was doing, including myself. We was second-guessing ourselves thinking like, you’re used to playing defense like this but now when you’ve been in the defense so long, eventually it had to start clicking in people’s heads so now everybody starts trusting each other. That was the biggest thing.”


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The Bears came out passing against a depleted Lions’ secondary in the first meeting between the teams at Soldier Field. But with a chance to salt the game away in the second half, they couldn’t generate anything on the ground (11 carries, 19 yards).

A week later, the Lions upset the Panthers because they stifled the league’s third-ranked rushing attack, and last week they held the Bears to 38 yards on 15 carries in a Thanksgiving loss.

The addition of defensive tackle Damon Harrison, acquired in an October trade with the New York Giants, also has had a significant impact on the run defense — Harrison has played in five games with the Lions — but the Lions face arguably their toughest test on the ground Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.

The Rams rank second in the NFL in both rushing and total yards, and have arguably the league’s best back in Todd Gurley.

As potent as L.A.’s passing attack is, Quin said the Lions must continue their dominance against the run if they’re going to win.

“You got to always stop the run,” Quin said. “You can’t let Todd Gurley get going on you like that. Then you got to try to get the quarterback off his spot and disrupt some of his passes. And you just got to understand that there’s going to be a point where they make a play or two and we got to bounce back and make the next play and not let it spiral downhill and get out of whack.”

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Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia speaks to the media on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in Allen Park.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press