Instead of the media focusing on the Detroit Lions and New York Jets matchup on Sunday, all the pregame talk was about Ndamukong Suh and his intentions to leave Detroit in the offseason– for a New York team no less.
The timing of the report raises some level of skepticism, but if the report is true and Suh does plan on bolting in free agency after the season, then all signs point towards a shift in defensive philosophy for the Lions in 2015.
Last offseason the Lions scrapped Jim Schwartz and much of his coaching staff and replaced them with Jim Caldwell, who in turn brought in Teryl Austin as his defensive coordinator, who specializes in an attacking or man-to-man press 3-4 defense. Many questioned the fit given how much the Lions already had invested in a 4-3 defense, including three defensive linemen in the first round in Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah.
Not only did the Lions hire a 3-4 defensive coordinator in the offseason, but they used their second round pick in the 2014 NFL draft on a ‘flamethrower’ of a linebacker in Kyle Van Noy whose skill set falls in line with a traditional 3-4 linebacker.
Despite signs that pointed towards the Lions moving to a 3-4 defense, the Lions insisted that they would stick to a base 4-3, but offered that there would be a mix of 3-4 looks, or what is called a hybrid defense. At the time, it seemed that the only real reason the Lions would stick with any 4-3 was simply because the resources they had invested in the defensive line. But if Suh leaves in free agency, what reason would the Lions have to stick to a 4-3, especially with fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley set to become a free agent in the offseason?
Looking at a potential Suh-less Lions defense, the roster appears more adapt to play 3-4. They have big athletic ends in Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah, both of whom could play multiple positions in a 3-4 defense and three savvy and diverse linebackers in Tahir Whitehead, Stephen Tulloch, and DeAndre Levy.
The only area of concern the Lions would have transitioning to a 3-4 scheme would be their need of a traditional nose tackle. But isn’t that a position they could fill with Nick Fairley, who has the right size, weight, speed to play in either defensive scheme?
According to Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, NFL scouts are looking for 3-4 nose tackles to be 6’0+, weigh 300+ lbs, and they need to run under a 5.5 second forty while being able to bench-press 225 lbs 30+ times.
Fairley would be a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle on size alone. Even asking Nick Fairley to put on some weight shouldn’t be a problem giving the issues he’s had with keeping weight off. Then there’s the issue of Nick Fairley’s playing style and how it transitions to nose tackle duties.
Here’s what Matt Miller has to say about what scouts look for in a nose tackle:
"A one- or two-gap player who is asked to stop the run by clogging rushing lanes. Nose tackles rarely get the up-field push needed to be pass-rushers, but they do generate pressures and hurries by moving the defensive line back toward the quarterback."
Can Nick Fairley be a dominant run stopper without the help of Suh? Here’s what NFL.com had to say when scouting Fairley:
"Fairley was once considered the consensus top defensive tackle prospect in the 2011 class, but his attitude and work ethic might have caused him to slip on some boards. Still, he projects to be incredibly disruptive against the pass and run. Nightmare to pass protect against. Possesses great burst, hands that never stop moving, brute strength to push the pocket, and a vast arsenal of moves. Against the run, keeps blockers away from his body, uses his height to find the football, and simply beats lineman with his quickness. Can sniff out screens and draws. There are almost no flaws with Fairley’s physical tools, but his character and work habits should be checked out. Regardless, he is certainly a top-five talent."
In other words Fairley can do it all and there’s no reason to think that Teryl Austin and his staff couldn’t create a menacing 3-4 nose tackle out of him.
Maybe the Lions decide to go an entirely different route letting both Suh and Fairley walk in free agency. That would mean the Lions would need to make it a priority to sign a nose tackle or two in free agency, or address the position in next year’s draft- both legitimate possibilities in that scenario.
I’m in no way suggesting that the Lions are better off without Ndamukong Suh. Suh is the most disruptive defensive tackle in the NFL and I hope the Lions can retain him long-term without sacrificing too much future cap space in the process.
What I am suggesting however is that the Lions are already grooming their defensive players in their current hybrid defense to make an effortless transition to a 3-4 defense next season based on the events that take place in the upcoming offseason.