The Lions Defense


Since this is the bye week and there is no opponent’s defense to preview, I will be taking a look at our own defense.

The Lions head coach, as most of us know, is Jim Schwartz, and their defensive coordinator is Gunther Cunningham. The two of them probably have the biggest contrast in style, experience and demeanor between a head coach and defensive coordinator in the NFL. On one hand, you have 44 year old Jim Schwartz, who is calm, cool and collected (most of the time) and likes to use advanced statistics to base his game plan. On the other hand, you have 64 year old Gunter Cunningham, who has coached for 40+ years, and believes that a defense’s strength doesn’t come from scheming but from conditioning players to be bigger, faster, and stronger and mentally preparing them for the game. Surprisingly, both Schwartz have coexisted very well and are building a defense that looks to be a top ten defense for the next decade to come.

As far as qualifications go, Jim Schwartz started out as a personnel scout for the Cleveland Browns under Bill Bellichick in 1995. From there he moved on to be the linebacker’s coach for the Ravens in 1996 to 1998, where he had the privilege of coaching guys like Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware. In 1999, he was hired by the Tennessee Titans to be their linebacker’s coach and in 2001 he was promoted to defensive coordinator. His defenses in Tennessee really weren’t ultra special by any means. The Titian’s defense did rank in the top ten in 2007 and 2008, but they were also the worst defense in the league in 2006, and ranked in the ‘teens the other years.

Gunther Cunningham, on the other hand, has a very proven track record for success. Cunningham became a head coach in 1995 with the Kansas City Chiefs. In the first four years as a defensive coordinator, Cunningham’s defenses were ranked as the top overall defense twice and allowed only 16.4 points between 1995 and 1999. After having so much success as a defensive coordinator, Cunningham was promoted to head coach in 1999. He coached the Chiefs for three season, but eventually was fired after two .500 seasons and a 6-10 season. He was later hired back as the defensive coordinator of the Chiefs in 2004, where he stayed until 2009 when he joined Jim Schwartz’s staff. As I said before, ‘Gun is known for his old school, vocal style of coaching. In fact, he apparently holds the unofficial record for the number of f-bombs dropped during one 40 minute practice session with 118 (for those of you counting, that’s an f-bomb every 20 seconds).

(I would like to note that the following breakdown that I am going to give of the Lions defense comes with help from Ty’s work over at

As we know, the Lions play a 4-3 defense, which means that there are four down lineman and three linebackers usually on the field, but there are variations to what a 4-3 defense looks like, and what their purpose is. For the Lions 4-3, the front four actually looks quite odd compared to the traditional 4-3 as the defensive ends line up on the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles (usually ends line up either right over or on the inside shoulder of the tackle depending on the situation). This leaves huge gaps between the defensive tackle and the defensive end (see the reproduced diagram from LionsInWinter below). The idea is that having the defensive ends line up in the edge will force runs to the inside and the quarterback to step up in the pocket where defensive tackles will be waiting to make plays. As one would imagine, talented defensive tackles are highly coveted in this scheme, which is why Cunningham took Glenn Dorsey with the 5th overall pick in Kansas City and took Ndamukong Suh with the 2nd overall pick here in Detroit.

The defensive tackle’s responsibilities is primarily to be run stuffers that eat up as many blockers as possible so that the defensive ends are one on one with tackles, but they are also expected to provide inside pass rush in passing downs. Last year, the Lions accomplished this by plugging in huge tackles like 330 lb. Sammie Hill and 345 lb. Grady Jackson, where they would command blockers due to their shear size, but they couldn’t get any interior pass rush. This year however, the Lions have far more talent as both Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams, although smaller than Hill and Jackson, can eat up just as many blocker, be good run stuffers and still get interior penetration.

The linebacker’s in Cunningham’s scheme have a very traditional role. They are expected to be big, sure tacklers first and coverage guys second. Importance isn’t really given on speed, but being fast never hurts.  Outside linebackers are mainly expected to provide run support for  the gaping holes between the defensive tackle and the defensive ends and drop back in pass coverage with a tight end if one is lined up on his side or simply drop back into zone coverage (cover a certain area of the field) in passing downs. Rarely will the Lions bring a blitz using a linebacker not named Julian Peterson. Generally, they like to blitz with their safeties as evidenced by Louis Delmas having the same number of sacks as Kyle Vanden Bosch.

The cornerbacks play mainly man-to-man coverage meaning that they simply stick with a certain receiver they are assigned. Every now and then they will play zone coverage where the cornerbacks are responsible for covering receivers in a certain portion of the field. In addition, there are no “strong” and “free” safeties in the Lions defense; there is simply a left and right safety, both of whom are responsible for covering each half of the field. This means that the safeties in this scheme need to well-rounded players that can cover, tackle, and even blitz when necessary. The corners also need to be speedy and be sure tacklers as man coverage often leaves them in single coverage with a wideout.

The Lions were the worst defense in the NFL last year, but a lot has changed since then. Before I go over the numbers, I want to share some tape with you guys. The first video is of the Bears game against the Lions last season. There are two plays that I want to focus on: the one starting at 0:44 mark and the one starting at 1:21 mark of the video. You will see in both that Jay Cutler is given a clean pocket to throw from and that the Lions barely get any pressure on him even though the Bear font line isn’t all that good.

Now lets look at some tape from this season. Below is a YouTube video of the Lions game against the Vikings  this season. Note the plays starting at 0:22 mark, 0:52 mark, and 1:06 mark. In all three plays, the inside of the Vikings line is shredded by Lions defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams. That is the difference that talent makes.

Now for the numbers. The Lions defense, through six weeks, is still struggling, giving up 23.3 points per game (tied for 26th in the league), but we have to remember that the Lions have faced the 7th, 9th, 11th ranked offenses and that this team still has ways to go in their rebuilding process, not to mention that 23.3 points given up is a touchdown improvement from last season, when they were giving up 30.9 points per game. The pass defense has improved significantly from last season when they were giving up 266 yards and game and allowed 35 touchdowns through the air while intercepting only nine passes. This season, they are allowing 224 yards through the air (not great, but far better), while they have given up 10 touchdowns through the air in six games (on pace for 27 touchdowns for the season, so huge improvement), while already picking off 7 passes compared to the 9 in all of last season.

The reasons for hope on the defensive side? Through six weeks, the Lions are tied for 7th in the league for interceptions with seven, 9th in the league in sacks with 16 (on pace for 43) compared to 26 last season, 10th in the league in forced fumbles. Interesting note: Ndamukong Suh with his five sacks has more sacks by himself than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings (surprisingly) have just one more sack as a team than Suh does by himself.