What happened to the Detroit Lions Defense?


This past off-season the eyes of the NFL world centered on the Detroit Lions and free agency moves involving current and former Lions. Exiting the team were two former first round defensive tackles and an explosive edge rusher. The Lions attempted to mitigate their losses by acquiring Haloti Ngata, the highly coveted Tyrunn Walker and former Canadian Football League sack leader Phillip Hunt.

As we approach the quarter mark of the season, it’s helpful to compare how the 2015 Lions defense compares to last year’s version.

TeamTotal DefensePass DefenseRush DefenseRedzone DefenseScoring Defense
2014 Lions2nd13th1st17th3rd
2015 Lions27th  Tied26th20th Tied17th24th Tied

***All Data Courtesy of NFL GSIS***

The above illustrations how precipitously the Lions have fallen in their defensive rankings since the end of 2014. The ‘experts’ on social media have been waiting all summer to declare the defense’s struggles are an extension of the Lions’ refusal to blow up their roster to pay one player. Those subscribing to this view reason the player lost was so transcendent at his position that he was almost exclusively responsible for the defense’s success in 2014.

To those espousing the above theory I ask, how do you explain the following?

TeamTotal DefensePass DefenseRush DefenseRedzone DefenseScoring Defense
2014 Dolphins12th6th24th16th20th
2015 Dolphins26th17th31st8th Tied19th

***All Data Courtesy of NFL GSIS***

Sep 27, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (left) and Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (right) both waits to be introduced before a game against the Buffalo Bills at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Worse than the statistical dip the Dolphins sustained when they forked over $114M to pilfer the Lions roster they also added a divisive element to their team that many have begun to speculate will end in the termination one or more Dolphins coaches. This isn’t the first controversy that has arisen between this player and a team. According to reports, this former Lion was ‘a headache’ during his tenure in Detroit.

The low hanging fruit of this discussion says the litany of issues facing the Lions defense was caused by the absence of a single player. Fortunately, most Lions fans are smart enough to know the real answer isn’t as simple as the ‘experts’ suggest.

The defensive line was the engine that drove the Lions to success in 2014. However, during the off-season the Lions completely overhauled their interior defensive line. Caraun Reid entered 2015 as the most experienced defensive tackle in Austin’s system despite only playing 112 snaps last season.

This inexperience in Austin’s scheme has inverted the roles of the team’s interior defensive linemen and its edge rushers. For example, according to PFF analytics, Ziggy Ansah ranks as the 8th best run stopping 4-3 defensive end in football. Jason Jones is effective in this area as well, cracking the list as the NFL’s 16th best run stopping 4-3 defensive end. Despite Ansah collecting 2 sacks over the first 3 games of the season, neither he nor any other Lions defensive end made PFF’s list of top pass rushing defensive ends. In fact, Jones and Ansah grade out as the team’s 2nd and 4th worst pass rushers.

The incongruence doesn’t end with the team’s edge rushers either as Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker are inexplicably ineffective against the run yet dominant against the pass.

Sep 3, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (92) gives high fives to fans as he runs onto the field before a preseason NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field. Lions beat the Bills 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In a stroke of irony, both Ngata and the player he replaced are tied as the 25th best run stopping defensive tackles in the NFL according to pro football focus analytics. Walker cracks this list a few spots later grading out as the 31st best run stopping DT out of 33 qualifiers. Detroit’s tandem fares much better in pass rushing. Tyrunn Walker grades out as the 4th best pass rushing defensive tackle in the NFL. Haloti Ngata ranks close behind at 6th on this list. The Lions are the only team to place two interior defensive linemen within the top 10 on this list.

When the numbers are extrapolated they give a clear picture of what’s going wrong on defense. The first problem is teams are able to successfully run between the tackles against the Lions. That was an impossible task in 2014. The numbers also suggest that when teams opt to double Haloti Ngata &/or Tyrunn Walker the Lions are incapable of creating pressure without blitzing. This means the secondary has to maintain zone coverage for so long enough receivers are able to find ‘soft spots’ within the zones.

Perhaps the biggest impact is felt when the Lions are in man coverage. Man coverage without pressure leads to games like this for opposing receivers:

It can also lead to embarrassments like this:

Some Lions fans took to social media furious with Darius Slay for surrendering a touchdown to Demaryius Thomas. Others blamed coaches for setting players up to fail.

On the now infamous play captured in the image above the Broncos were at the Lions 46-yard line with 13 seconds left in the half. Conventional wisdom says play prevent defense paying particular attention to sideline routes so the opposing offense is forced to take completions over the middle. This would keep the clock rolling and create a situation where the offense has to decide between taking a field goal or tossing a Hail Mary into the endzone.

Instead, Austin tried to trick Peyton Manning by calling a defense that feigned blitzing pre-snap but retreated into coverage at the snap. This pulled the safeties out of position and left the whole field in play for the Broncos. In effect, Austin gave a First-Ballot Hall of Fame Quarterback the option of throwing to the sidelines against man coverage to one of the 5 best wide receivers in the NFL. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to do the math on this one. Naturally, Peyton Manning wasn’t fooled; he exploited a horribly designed play to extend a 1-point lead to an 8-point lead.

The play can be reviewed here:

The forecast on defense may seem bleak but keep in mind we’ve focused on the team’s weaknesses to highlight areas in which the team can improve. The Lions are extremely deep and talented on defense, which is why the team hasn’t panicked as yet. In fact, there seems to be a prevailing notion that with patience things will right themselves.

However, there are more proactive remedies than simply exercising patience.

The simple solution to address the team’s lack of edge pressure involves incorporating more zone blitzing concepts into the current defensive scheme. This form of ‘measured aggression’ compensates for the team’s inability to create edge pressure while preventing corners and safeties from being exposed in man coverage. An added benefit to having highly athletic defensive tackles like Haloti Ngata, Caraun Reid and Gabe Wright is that each are capable of dropping into shallow zones and their presence should help fortify tackling at the 2nd level of the defense.

Haloti Ngata has already proven his value to the Lions when acting as a ‘zone defender.’ What may have gone unnoticed to some is Glover Quin’s interception against the Broncos was caused by Haloti Ngata. Ngata instinctively realized Manning was about to throw the ball so he abandoned his pass rush and retreated into shallow zone coverage. When Peyton released the ball Ngata was able to deflect the pass, batting it into the air. Quin made a spectacular play on the ball to kill a Broncos drive, but Ngata’s athleticism and instincts were the catalysts that made Quin’s interception possible.

If Austin is smart, he is developing a zone blitzing package that makes better use of the unique skill set of the players currently on his roster.

Aug 28, 2015; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Detroit Lions middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead (59) knocks the ball from Jacksonville Jaguars running back Corey Grant (33) during the second half of an NFL preseason football game at EverBank Field. The Lions won 22-17. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking to the point of improving player utilization, Austin may want to reevaluate his usage of Tahir Whitehead. Despite playing poorly in stretches Stephen Tulloch has played 100 more snaps (152) this season than Tahir Whitehead (52). Despite limited opportunities Whitehead grades out as the Lions’ 4th highest rated defender, making his biggest impact against the run where he’s the team’s 3rd best run stopper.

In PFF’s grading system scores are cumulative. This means the more one plays the more chance a player has to improve/worsen their grade. The fact Whitehead has earned a positive 2.3 overall grade while Tulloch sits at negative 0.4 is proof our eyes haven’t deceived us. Instead, it reinforces the notion Tahir Whitehead deserves to start over Stephen Tulloch.

Barring an internal leak of information, there’s no way for a blogger or even a beat writer to figure out what’s driven a wedge between Austin and Whitehead. Still during the preseason we noticed Tahir Whitehead had fallen behind Travis Lewis in the rotation. The Lions have tried to sell fans on the notion production or lack thereof has led to a reduced role for Whitehead but the numbers and the eye test seems to undermine that premise.

With Levy’s heath still a concern and teams targeting coverage and tackling at the 2nd level of the defense the Lions have a dire need for speed and athleticism at linebacker. Fortunately, Mayhew has given coaches what they need to mitigate Levy’s loss. Brandon Copeland, veteran combine stud who ran a 4.52 40-yard dash a 6’2 246 pounds sits aimlessly on the bench when his size and speed could be an asset if he were given a chance to play. 2014 2nd round draft pick Kyle Van Noy was handpicked by Austin to serve in the role of ‘flamethrower’ and yet he’s only played six total snaps in three games.

The Detroit Lions are far too talented on the defensive side of the ball to rank as poorly as they do. If the Lions are to regain their footing on defense this season all hands must be on deck. For the sake of salvaging the season whatever issues may exist between the organization and Whitehead, Copeland, Van Noy and others must be resolved. Additionally, Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin must integrate more zone blitzing concepts into his defensive philosophy. Should the Lions make a few subtle changes the team’s defense could improve significantly in short order.

Let us know what you think about the Lions defense and ways in which it could be improved. I can be reached on Twitter at @dmacali818.

Next: https://sidelionreport.com/2015/09/30/what-the-detroit-lions-have-become-and-what-they-can-be/

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