First and last line of Lions’ defense

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — While Nick Fairley celebrated a sack with his familiar arms-out-to-the-side airplane imitation, Ndamukong Suh took a different approach.

Suh, displaying his incredible brute strength, simply threw one arm out and brought down St. Louis’ Steven Jackson, one of the biggest and strongest running backs in the NFL.

These are the types of scenes the Lions need from the defensive line if they’re going to continue to hide their depleted and flawed secondary.

The Lions produced four sacks in their opening victory over the Rams, three by defensive tackles — one each for Fairley, Suh and unsung hero Corey Williams.

The D-line totally controlled the line of scrimmage against a beat-up St. Louis offensive front. Not only did the Lions put constant pressure on the quarterback, they also shut down the run game, holding Jackson to 2.5 yards per carry.

It’s going to have to be that way again Sunday in San Francisco. The 49ers also have a talented running back in Frank Gore and added some offensive weapons this year to go with superstar tight end Vernon Davis.

Week in and week out, the success of the Lions will largely come down to whether the front four can own its matchups. If not, the back end is going to be exposed all day long.

The Lions have a solid four-man rotation in the middle with Suh, Williams, Fairley and Sammie Hill at the defensive tackles.

They’re also four deep with Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson at defensive end.

“We’ve got a good rotation going,” said Fairley, who was hampered much of last season with a foot injury after being the No. 13 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. “We’re able to keep each other fresh. It’s very important.”

Much has been made about the importance of Fairley and Suh living up to their potential this season. That could be the difference between a good and great season.

Fairley’s motivation has been inconsistent much of the time, but there were some good signs — reasons to be cautiously optimistic about him — in the opener.

“He showed up with a sack, which was a big play for us, but that wasn’t his best play,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “His best play was stuff that falls below the radar.

“He did a nice job in there, particularly against the run.”

At some point this season, Fairley likely will have to serve a suspension, possibly for two games, once his two offseason arrests are settled in the courts back in Alabama.

Then there’s Suh, the No. 2 pick overall in 2010. He’s being counted on to produce like his rookie season when he made the Pro Bowl. Suh’s performance last year suffered when he got caught up in a lot of drama, including a two-game suspension for kicking an opponent.

When he’s at his best, Suh makes awe-inspiring plays like the one against Jackson.

“Sheer power, man,” teammate Justin Durant said. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. We were all just like, ‘Wow!'”

Suh isn’t overly excited about what he and the other defensive tackles accomplished in their first outing. Too early, too much to prove.

“That’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “I don’t find anything special or out of the ordinary. I expect Nick to play the way he did. I expect Corey to play the way he did. Same with Sammie.

“Myself, very average game for me.”

Although Suh and Fairley have had no problem generating headlines, for better or worse, since coming to Detroit, Williams is the lesser-known standout of the group.

A sixth-round pick in 2004 by Green Bay, Williams was acquired by the Lions before the 2010 season from Cleveland. The price was minimal — all they had to do was flip-flop fifth- and seventh-round picks that year with the Browns.

Williams continues to stay under the radar when it comes to publicity — at least compared to Suh and Fairley — but there’s no denying he’s a force and a leader up front for the Lions.

“He really was the most productive guy on the defensive line last week,” Fairley said.

When asked about Williams being a little underappreciated, Schwartz said flatly, “Not by us.”

“He’s a true professional,” the coach added. “Two of the bigger plays in the game were his forced holding penalties. He made such a good play, they had to hold, and those were drive stoppers.

“He’s been a consistent player since he’s been here.”

Williams, in his ninth year in the NFL and third with the Lions, has been hampered by a knee injury lately, keeping him out of practice the past couple days.

More than likely, he’ll be back out there Sunday, grinding away and doing the dirty work that could make this defensive line as good as any in the league.


Receiver Calvin Johnson (foot) returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday with a foot injury suffered in the opener.

“Foot’s good,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to give it a day to rest yesterday. You want to stress it on a day like today. It’s a big run day for us.

“You see how it will respond in the game. It did good.”