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October 10, 2011
Three years ago they suffered through a winless season. Now, behind an offense that loves the comeback and a defense with a warrior at its core, the unbeaten Lions are restoring the roar
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October 10, 2011

Remade In Detroit

Three years ago they suffered through a winless season. Now, behind an offense that loves the comeback and a defense with a warrior at its core, the unbeaten Lions are restoring the roar

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The Rub BBQ Pub opened in downtown Detroit two summers ago, a bold bet made during the economic downturn. The owners put 30 television sets in the restaurant and a dozen Michigan beers on tap, among them Atwater Dirty Blonde, Kid Rock Badass and Motor City Ghetto Blaster. They're served up alongside standard bar grub—sliders and wings—and entrees like the Bases Loaded (brisket, pulled pork and ribs) and the Joe Louis (smoked turkey leg). Once a week, in homage to a recent arrival, the Rub offers an additional menu item: the Suh Burger. "It's a quarter-pound burger with chili, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, jalapeños and corn," says Chris Eid, one of the restaurant's managers. "It's huge."

On Sunday at the pub, which sits a block from the Tigers' Comerica Park and two blocks from the Lions' Ford Field on Adams Street, upwards of 200 patrons squeezed in to watch America's Team take on what has long been America's Doormat. Three years ago Detroit became the first NFL team to go 0--16, prompting a coaching change, a different logo and a new round of old jokes.

How do you keep the Detroit Lions out of your yard? Put up a goal post.

This year the Lions jumped out to a 3--0 start that included a 26--23 win at Minnesota in Week 3, when they overcame a 20--0 halftime deficit. The old jokes yielded to a new question: Could this team be for real? But when Detroit fell into a 24-point hole on Sunday in Dallas, a familiar foreboding set in. "Everybody was just sitting here waiting for the Tigers [playoff game against the Yankees]," Eid says. "Then the second half started, and the Lions began scoring, and everybody just went crazy. Detroit football has been the butt of jokes for so long—even Jay Leno talks bad about us—but there is nothing but excitement now. The Lions have restored the roar."

After years as a civic embarrassment, the Lions have built something so powerful that their former selves have become unrecognizable. In Sunday's 34--30 defeat of the Cowboys they completed their second straight comeback from 20 or more points down—the first NFL team to accomplish that feat—behind a young nucleus and an excitable coach in Jim Schwartz, who tweets his music playlist on the bus ride to games. (Sunday's featured Pantera's head-banging anthem, Cowboys from Hell.)

Even before the kickoff Dallas tried to push the Lions around like old times. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan told The Dallas Morning News last week that his unit faces two better receivers in practice than Detroit's 6'5" Calvin Johnson. The Lions were not amused. When Johnson caught two touchdowns from Matthew Stafford, including the game-winner over cornerback Terence Newman with 1:39 left, Schwartz opened his postgame news conference with a message for Ryan: "I'm just glad that the third-best receiver on their team is on our team."

Who saw this day coming? Stafford, after an injury-plagued first two years, is playing like the franchise quarterback he was expected to be when he was drafted No. 1 out of Georgia. Johnson, the second pick out of Georgia Tech in 2007, is making his case as the league's best player, period. The defense, ranked last in the NFL in 2009, was a healthy 11th after Sunday. The Lions have swagger. The city of Detroit has belief. The NFL may never be the same.

While Stafford and Johnson lead the resurgent offense, at the center of the defensive rebirth is left tackle Ndamukong Suh, the son of Cameroonian and Jamaican immigrants who wants to finish his playing career in Detroit. Not since the days of Barry Sanders has a player so rapidly become the proud face of Lions football, his physical play reminiscent of the mayhem once caused by Dick (Night Train) Lane and Alex Karras. At a time of 350-pound interior defensive linemen, Suh is a lithe-by-comparison 307. He's quick enough to dart past offensive linemen but strong enough to bowl them over. On a fourth-and-goal from the Lions' one, with Detroit trailing 7--0 in the first quarter, Suh shed his block, dived into the backfield and helped thwart Felix Jones short of the goal line. The failure to score would come back to haunt Dallas.

On most downs Suh draws double teams—often the guard and the center—but sometimes a running back too. "The things teams are doing, trying to chip him with backs, you usually don't see that," says Detroit defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "Teams usually chip defensive ends, not tackles, but they know they can't just leave a guard on him, so they bring over the center or chip him with a back."

Says Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, "You have to know where he is, and as a quarterback that's hard to fathom because he's not a defensive end or linebacker. He's in the box every play, but he causes a lot of problems. Anytime he's one-on-one, get the ball out."

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