The funny thing about Teryl Austin’s defense is that no one really knows what to expect. He only has one year as a full time defensive coordinator and that was at the college level, but but based on the offseason we can make a few assumptions about what the Detroit Lions new defense will look like.
Detroit Lions Remain a 4-3 Defense
The Teryl Austin defense will be quite different from anything the Lions did during Jim Schwartz’s tenure in Detroit, but it will still remain a base 4-3 team with four defensive linemen and three linebackers. The Lions brass was adamant throughout the coaching search that they wanted to remain a 4-3 team. While Schwartz featured a defense that completely revolved around getting pressure with the front four, Austin is much more willing to mix things up.
"I’m not going to be married to anything. What we’re going to try to be married to is what’s best for our guys that week and that game. – Teryl Austin"
The Lions still have a pretty fearful front four, with three first round picks spent on defensive lineman, but with new pieces like James Ihedigbo and Kyle Van Noy the Detroit Lions defense will be much more focused on bringing pressure from all over the field, not just the front four. The Lions will also feature more “hybrid” defense looks with their personnel.
While the defense structurally stays the same with four linemen and three linebackers, the way they’ll be deployed couldn’t be more different than what Schwartz did. Schwartz ran a “4-3 over” scheme with the now infamous “wide 9” defensive front. This puts the defensive ends on the outside shoulder of the tight end in order to give them the best angle to get upfield toward the quarterback. Ideally, the ends aim for right around the 8 yard mark behind the line of scrimmage.
Here you can see how far out the defense ends were positioned:
The Lions will now most likely run a base “4-3 under” defense as their base defense in 2014. A good example of a team that runs 4-3 under as a base defense is the Seattle Seahawks. If you want a full, in-depth look into how the Seahawks run their defense, Field Gulls has you covered.
Here’s an example of what a 4-3 under defense looks like:
This type of defense has specific prototypes that each player should fill. There are still four linemen and three linebackers, but there are also some differences. A few of the key different pieces in this defense are:
- Closed (strong) side end: DE
- Open (weak) side end: DE (Also known as the Elephant or LEO)
- Strong side (SAM) linebacker: S
The Lions used to use defensive ends on a particular side of the field–think Kyle Vanden Bosch on one side and Cliff Avril on the other. Now, the Lions will use the “closed” and “open” designations with their ends. Martin Mayhew shed some light on this after the draft:
"“We’re going to play a closed end and open end this year. We’ll have an end on the tight end side. He’ll be on the closed side. He’ll be a bigger, more-physical, Jason Jones-type of guy. Then on the open side, we’ll have Ziggy (Ansah) over there, and we think Larry (Webster) has an opportunity to compete over there as well.”"
The closed side defensive end will line up on the tight end (strong) side of the field. The open side defensive end will line up on the weak side of the formation.
In Seattle, they used Red Bryant as a 323 lbs. closed side defensive end. This is the position that Jason Jones will play in 2014. At right around 280 lbs., Jones has plenty of beef to hold up against the run on that closed side. In this defense he’ll be playing more of a “five-technique.” This type of defensive end is more prominent in 3-4 defenses, but the Lions will use him to stop the run and allow other players to funnel to the ball. Jones will no longer be expected to generate a lot of sacks. His main responsibility is to stuff the run.
The open side defensive lineman is known as the “LEO” in Pete Carroll’s defense. This position is reserved for the best pass rusher on the team. Ziggy Ansah will fill this role. He’ll still line up pretty wide in the formation like he did in the “Wide 9.” This should allow him to still use his speed and strength to attack opposing tackles.
Adding a Rush Linebacker
The addition of Kyle Van Noy as the rush linebacker is an early tell for the type of defense the Lions will run. While still playing a base 4-3, the Lions will utilize Van Noy as a rush linebacker. He could also see time with his hand in the dirt in sub packages. Van Noy excels in reading and reacting to what the offense is trying to do. While he’s not as physically gifted as his fellow Brigham Young teammate, Ansah, he has the football IQ to make up for his limitations.
In Teryl Austin’s defense, Van Noy will line up over the tight end. They’ll expect him to stand up against the tight end in run support as well as stay with them in coverage. You’ll see him line up both in a more standard SAM linebacker position and on the line of scrimmage.
The Elephant Rusher
One of the wrinkles to the new defense will be the use of the Elephant pass rusher. Basically the “Elephant” and “LEO” are the same thing–the weakside pass rusher. The Elephant originated as a pass rush set under the 49ers’ defense in the early 1990s, and was transformed into its own position under Pete Carroll. The LEO position is now a featured position on the Seahawks and Jaguars. Here’s how Carroll describes the LEO in his defense:
"“(He) has to be one of your best football players. Size does not matter as much. We want an athletic player who can move around.”"
Here’s a quick idea of what to look for:
Like I mentioned previously, that player on the Lions will be Ziggy Ansah. It’s still unclear at this point if Devin Taylor will play that role at all or if he’ll fill more of the “closed” defensive end role. One guy the Lions have high hopes for in this position is Larry Webster. I’m not sure I feel as strongly as they do, but he definitely is an athletic player who the Lions can move around.
Even if you never hear Teryl Austin refer to the LEO position, this role will play a big part in the defense. A simple way to identify the Elephant in the 4-3 under is when pass rushers from either side of the line are in a two-point (standing) stance. This can create a defense that looks much more like a 3-4 or even a 5-2 front.
At its most basic level, the Elephant pass rush has the 4-3 under formation with the defensive end (LEO) standing up.
We’ve covered a lot, and we didn’t even get to coverages, blitz packages, or gap assignments. Hopefully we’ll continue to give you a deep dive into the defense as the season goes on. I’m excited to see how the Detroit Lions new defensive system pans out. Teryl Austin should bring some new and exciting wrinkles to Detroit, but will they work out? Only time will tell.