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Lions can roar on defense, too

Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (90) rushes

Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (90) rushes the quarterback during the second quarter of a against the Houston Texans at Ford Field. (Nov. 22, 2012) Credit: AP

DETROIT -- Are the Lions for real?

Detroit owns the best defense in the NFL, one spot ahead of Sunday's opponent, the Jets. But while Rex Ryan always builds his teams around a dominant defense, the Lions' status is somewhat of a surprise.

Detroit has allowed an average of 244.3 yards per game and the Jets are second, surrendering 268.3.

Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin bristled at the suggestion that his unit's performance has exceeded expectations.

"I don't think there's anything surprising," he said. "Our guys work really hard and they're playing really well together. That's kind of what we expected. We expected them to play well together and we'll try to continue to improve and continue to play well with each other, play within the scheme and do the things that we're supposed to do. I'm not surprised that we're playing well because they've practiced well."

Known more for its offensive firepower (see: Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson), Detroit does have impact players on defense. The unit is led by dominant All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy, an outstanding pass defender.

But the Lions' defense suffered a huge blow during last week's win over the Packers when middle linebacker and defensive signal caller Stephen Tulloch was lost for the season when he tore his left ACL while celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers.

Tulloch will be replaced by backup Tahir Whitehead, who is in his third season. Austin is confident in Whitehead's ability.

"He's sudden, he can strike people, he can run people down. He gives you a little bit of a pass rush because he is so fast," Austin said. "We saw that early in [organized team activities] . . . Last week he got thrust into action. The first game we didn't play very much base defense and this game we weren't going to play very much either but then Stephen got hurt, he had to go in and I thought he did a pretty good job."

A key to Detroit's defensive improvement has been eliminating big plays, which has vexed the team in recent years.

"They're demoralizing not just [for the] the defense but for the team," Austin said. "As long as we can continue to keep the ball in front of us and tackle well when they do catch it, we'll be all right."

The Lions have to worry about the Jets' defense, too. Detroit offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi talked about the challenge the Jets present.

"It's a combination of really good players with really good coaches and a really tough scheme," said Lombardi, the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. "It seems like every play, there's a new defense up there. A new front, a new pressure or a new coverage. It's very difficult to zero in and target this defense . . . they've got a really strong group of players."

New York Sports