The Detroit Lions were blessed with two of the best Linebackers in the NFL last season after Stephen Tulloch bounced back from his 2012 knee injury and DeAndre Levy suddenly took the league by storm. Despite that, the installation of a new defensive scheme led to OLB becoming one of the Lions’ chief needs this off-season.
They addressed that position in the draft with the second round selection of Kyle Van Noy, but it’s possible there is another on the roster that could benefit from the change of scheme. Tahir Whitehead was a pass rusher at Temple prior to the Lions trading up to nab him in the 5th round of the 2013 draft, could we see a similar uptick in use even in a crowded position group?
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Whitehead was a curious selection by the Lions, who ran a 4-3 scheme strictly under Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham, but he was actually the third 3-4 LB the team drafted over the past few years. Ronnell Lewis and Travis Lewis, both drafted out of Oklahoma in 2012, led many fans to believe the team was going away from their “Rush Four All the Time” philosophy into a more diverse blitzing scheme that sadly never materialized. The selection of Whitehead again gave rise to that thought, but left fans disappointed yet again as he was solely a ST contributor.
Although Tahir Whitehead provides some excellent Special Teams play, fans had justifiable concerns that too much was given up to acquire him. If the team had no plans to play him as a Linebacker, why didn’t they simply store their picks and draft extra ST players, rather than trade up for one? A new staff in 2013 and a very clear philosophy shift means we may actually get to see the promising former Temple Owl on the field, as the LB blitz is a huge staple of Teryl Austin’s scheme.
Though not a statistical marvel, Whitehead was moderately successful from that standpoint at Temple. He registered only 7 sacks in four seasons, but a rock solid 27.5 tackles for loss, illustrating why run defense was considered a strong point of his game. One knock on Whitehead coming out of college was that he was more of a blitzer than a pass rusher, which would turn some 3-4 teams off; but too small to be a DE and not technically sound enough to be a LB in a 4-3. Teryl Austin’s scheme is the perfect landing spot for a player like that, who falls somewhere between the 3-4 and 4-3 roles.
With the starting three LBs set, how would someone like Whitehead even crack the lineup, though? Simple answer is, of course, sub packages. Tulloch was effective in a limited blitzing role, but it was never a strong point of Levy’s game. It’s possible the Lions could put Whitehead in for Levy or even Tulloch on obvious run downs to take advantage of his athleticism and pass rushing skills. Though you don’t like to see Levy or Tulloch off the field on Nickel downs, a place both excelled, the Lions new projected uses of 3-4 looks means there’s ample possibility we see Whitehead as part of a 4 man grouping.
While it is admittedly unlikely that Whitehead will supplant any of the starting linebackers in 2014, his underrated ability to rush standing up has given him a value he didn’t have under the previous coaching staff. Though he was unable to break the lineup in 2013, it was clear in camp and on ST that Whitehead stepped up his game last season. If he does again this year the team may have a sub rusher they need to act opposite Kyle Van Noy and provide an extra lift in both the run and pass game.