By Ashley Dunkak

ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – With a unique combination of size, speed and ability, Nick Fairley could be the x-factor for the Detroit Lions defensive line this season. While it would be too simplistic to say the success of the unit hinges on how well Fairley performs, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin knows what a difference Fairley can make when he plays at his best.

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“Nick is really disruptive, and he’s explosive, and he’s got a tremendous amount of talent, and if he’s playing well inside, then that makes it harder for teams just to double or get up on our linebackers and do those things, so the better he plays, as we’ve said before, the better our defense will be,” Austin said. “We’re anticipating him playing well … We need him to play well.”

The Lions declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Fairley’s contract because the defensive tackle has yet to play well consistently. Many identify him as supremely talented, but he has had to overcome a number of hurdles, from his weight to his sleep apnea to concerns about his work ethic. Most recently, Fairley endured a public demotion to the second team.

Recently returned to the first string, Fairley has been better recently, with preparation and work ethic the main points of improvement.

“He’s worked harder, he’s practiced harder, he’s doing all the things, and so consequently he’s playing better,” Austin said. “That’s what’s earned our trust is that he’s playing better, and I think it all goes back to how he prepares, and when he prepares well, he plays well. As long as he continues to do that, he’ll be our starter. And that goes for any position, not just Nick Fairley – you have to prepare well to play well, and if you don’t prepare correctly or prepare well, I’m sure somebody will be playing better than you, and it’ll show up over time.”

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who like Fairley becomes a free agent following the 2014 season, has a reputation as one of the hardest-working players on the team. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said that while he believes Suh sets a good example, he hardly expects Suh’s presence to elevate Fairley’s game, and the coaches cannot significantly alter Fairley’s approach either.

“What Nick does is up to Nick, and that’s one of the things that you find out in coaching,” Caldwell said. “You don’t change people. Often times people give coaches credit for turning a guy around or making a huge difference. Certainly, we all give him counsel, we all want him to play well because our job depends on it. We want guys to play the best they possibly can because winning is important to us. It’s our livelihood.

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“But the fact of the matter is, when it boils down to it, it’s when a guy makes up his own mind to be the best that he possibly can be is when the difference occurs,” Caldwell continued. “Something might be a catalyst, another teammate, but I think in this particular case, it’s up to Nick. He’s the guy that’s going to make the difference.”

Linebacker Stephen Tulloch sounded optimistic Fairley will do exactly that.

“Nick’s obviously a heck of a talent, very explosive player, one of the most athletic big guys I’ve seen,” Tulloch said. “He’s doing the right things. He’s taking care of his body, just coming to work every day, and Nick’s a likable guy.

“He just got off to the wrong start going into training camp,” Tulloch added, “but I think he’s back on the right page and can help us this season.”




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