By: Will Burchfield
Asked about a gain, Teryl Austin pointed to a loss.
Sure, the Lions got Jarrad Davis back last week, and yeah, he’s pretty darn good at stopping the run.
But the man who really clogs up the run game is the one who’s now out for the season: defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
“The guy we lost this week impacts it as well. Haloti is a big body inside. As agile as he was and is, that’s a loss that you want to look at. I think we have guys that are very capable in there, but you also have a guy that’s been a proven, proven run stopper for a lot of years in this league,” said Austin.
The Lions placed Ngata on IR on Tuesday with a biceps injury; the Free Press has since reported he’s done for the year. He may well be done for good.
For the Lions, it’s a blow with far-reaching ramifications.
“Obviously, he’s an incredible individual not just in terms of what he does for us on the field because he’s been able to do a lot of great things for us, but even off the field with his leadership. It’s huge,” said Jim Caldwell. “You don’t necessarily go out and find another Haloti Ngata. I mean, it’s just not going to happen.”
Ngata, 33, was in the midst of a strong season, arguably his best season as a Lion. He had seven tackles, two sacks and a pass break-up through five games, and was a foundational piece of a defense that has been terrific against the run.
“Oh yeah,” Caldwell said of Ngata having a big year. “No doubt about it.”
The Lions have held opponents to just 74.6 rushing yards per game, the third best mark in the league. While they’ve benefitted to an extent from in-game injuries to the likes of David Johnson and Dalvin Cook, they’ve also done a number of good things as a defense.
“I think we’re doing a fantastic job of committing to the run and stopping it, from the secondary to the linebackers to the D-line. We’re flying around, we’re executing, and we’re hitting our run responsibilities,” said safety Glover Quin.
Said Austin, “We’re doing a good job of collapsing on the edge. Our big guys inside are holding up double teams, not allowing the guards and the centers to run up on our second level, and our linebackers and safeties are playing downhill.”
The powerful, nearly unmovable Ngata clearly played a key role in that.
“He was big,” said Quin, “but as a defense we have to do what we’ve always done. Next guy has to step in and play. Haloti’s never played 100 percent of the snaps in the game, so there’s been somebody that has to come in and give him a breather. Guys have to come in and play more and play at a high level. That’s really the only thing you can do.”
As Caldwell made clear, there’s no finding another Ngata. Guys with his stature — 6’4, 335 pounds — and agility aren’t out there for the taking. A’Shawn Robinson is a close replica, although the young defensive tackle hasn’t stood out as much in his second season.
“We all want guys to play better, but I think he’s played well,” said Austin. “He’s very competitive, he hustles hard. Looking for maybe a few more splash plays, a few more stats, which I think will come. But it’s like anything — he’s doing the things right, so those plays will come.”
The Lions are also looking to two newcomers for a boost on the defensive line. They signed defensive end Datone Jones, a former first-round pick, and defensive tackle Caraun Reid, a former Lion, earlier this week.
Of Jones, Caldwell said, “Powerful. He’s got ability, strength, athleticism.”
Of Reid, he said, “Obviously, we know who he is and what he’s capable of doing, so we got a good feel for him and he knows our system as well.”
Caldwell said Reid looks different than when he was last with Detroit in 2016. The Lions waived him after training camp.
“Just look at him physically. He’s a little bit different. Looks like he’s a little more powerful, a little bit bulkier. But he’s always been a high-effort guy, so we’ll see how he does,” said Caldwell.
Powerful and bulky — two words that encapsulate Ngata. The Lions have plenty of players to step in for him, but they’ll have a hard time filling his shoes.