(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)By NOAH TRISTERAP Sports Writer
Cliff Avril began last weekend’s game by forcing a fumble and ended it by recovering one.
Now in his fourth season, Avril has become perhaps the most consistent player on the Detroit Lions’ vaunted defensive line. He had two sacks Sunday in a win over Minnesota, bringing his season total to nine, and is also tied for the league lead with six forced fumbles.
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”I’m just enjoying football,” Avril said. ”I think I’m just learning how to become a pro also – a professional.”
Avril was drafted in the third round out of Purdue in 2008. His rookie season was forgettable. He started four games but Detroit went 0-16. Since then, he’s made steady progress while remaining somewhat under the radar.
After contributing 8.5 sacks last season, Avril signed a one-year qualifying offer to stay with the Lions after the end of the lockout. His stock has only risen since. Ndamukong Suh gets most of the attention, and rookie Nick Fairley may have a bright future, but Avril’s steady impact has been crucial for Detroit’s defensive front. The Lions are in the middle of the NFC playoff race heading into Sunday’s game at Oakland.
”He’s not just a starter,” Detroit defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. ”He’s one of the best defensive ends in the league. He’s not just getting to the quarterback, he’s making big plays.”
On Detroit’s first defensive play against the Vikings, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Avril circled behind quarterback Christian Ponder and swatted at his throwing arm. The ball came loose, and the Lions recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
”He’s made game-changing plays,” coach Jim Schwartz said. ”Anytime it’s a first play of the game, you not only get a sack, but a strip, and you cause a touchdown – that’s obviously big.”
At the end of the fourth quarter, the Vikings drove to the Detroit 1-yard line, hoping to score a go-ahead touchdown. Quarterback Joe Webb fumbled, the ball was batted back toward midfield, the clock ran out, and Avril sealed the 34-28 victory by running all the way into Minnesota territory to make the recovery.
He acknowledged thinking about trying to scoop the ball up and run for a touchdown. He’s never scored one as a pro.
”It crossed my mind for a split-second,” he said. ”Then I was like, `The best thing to do is just to fall on this.’ No telling what could happen while I’m running to the end zone. That was definitely the better choice.”
It was his third fumble recovery of the season. He’s forced twice that many, earning a share of the league lead in that department with Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs.
”To lead the NFL in anything, honestly – with all the competition and everything – is pretty cool. It’s not something I necessarily think about but it’s definitely cool to accomplish that so far,” Avril said. ”I’m just happy to get sacks. If it’s a sack-strip, it’s a plus.”
Avril says he’s still a work in progress – a scary thought for opposing teams.
”I haven’t been playing football that long – unlike some of these guys. They’ve been playing since they were little kids,” he said. ”I didn’t start until high school, so I still feel like there’s room for growth.”
Now, Avril will try to finish the season healthy. He hasn’t played more than 13 games since his rookie season, but he’s set to surpass that number this weekend.
”I think just mentally, I’m a little more focused,” Avril said. ”I’m trying to be consistent with everything, trying to keep my body right and continue with the film studying. It seems to be working.”
NOTES: Lions DE Lawrence Jackson (thigh) practiced Friday, but he was limited and is listed as doubtful for Sunday’s game. CB Aaron Berry (right shoulder) is also doubtful. He didn’t practice. … Detroit S Louis Delmas (right knee) was limited in practice and is questionable for the Oakland game.