There hasn’t been a ton of things to be optimistic about for Detroit Lions fans this year, but if there’s one thing, it’s how drastically the interior of their defensive line has improved over the season. Entering the 2018 offseason, it was considered one of the team’s biggest needs, and the free agent addition of Sylvester Williams did little to inspire optimism among the fanbase.
The midseason addition of Damon Harrison Sr. certainly gets the most play as to why Detroit can suddenly stop the run and plug the middle of the field, but there’s more to it than that. Third-year player A’Shawn Robinson has gone from healthy scratch in Week 1 to the No. 6 rated interior defender according to Pro Football Focus.
And according to veteran defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, this is just the tip of the iceberg for Robinson.
“But you can see the improvement from Week 1 to now what type of defensive linemen they were. They were like that already, they just had to understand our defense, and once they did, now you’re getting the key components. Now it is our d-line. At one point, people were worried about it, now people don’t really talk about our d-line anymore.”
“He will be probably one of the top three run defender or d-linemen in the league,” Francois said. He’s that special that he can do it. Now he just has to finish this season out great. Fourth year, now you have to take that big leap. Now you gotta make that improvement and be like the d-lineman that everyone knows he’s capable of being.”
Francois credits A’Shawn’s slow start to simply learning the new system. Both he and rookie Da’Shawn Hand needed some time to understand what was expected of them. Now that they’re both comfortable mentally, they can let their raw talents take over.
“But you can see the improvement from Week 1 to now what type of defensive linemen they were,” Francois added. “They were like that already, they just had to understand our defense, and once they did, now you’re getting the key components. Now it is our d-line. At one point, people were worried about it, now people don’t really talk about our d-line anymore.”
But it wasn’t just about paying attention in meetings or simply getting acclimated to the new system. Francois said both Hand and Robinson were proactive in learning the new defense, constantly asking questions and using the veteran presence of Francois and Harrison to their advantage and learning the defense at an accelerated rate.
“They actually open their mouth and ask us like, ‘Hey, what do you see?’ or ‘How can I get better’ or ‘How can I do this?’” So that would help them get their game a little bit faster. A’Shawn came along a lot quicker and became the dominant player he is.”
Robinson’s play has been a revelation in the past few weeks. He’s been a key force in holding impressive backs like Christian McCaffrey, Tarik Cohen and (to a lesser extent) Todd Gurley in check. Now he’s considered part of an elite club of defensive tackles:
The top graded players on the defensive interior so far this season. pic.twitter.com/YKUeNmmmmN— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 4, 2018
“You see how he is in the game. He throws guys to the side, he can get penetration,” Francois said. “That guy always moves forward, nobody can stop him. I don’t care what lineman, you can flip on any film on him. No lineman has ever been able to stop A’Shawn Robinson. As long as he’s going forward, you can’t stop him, and he’s athletic. You can’t find a guy that size with his ability that that’s athletic.”