When general manager Bob Quinn first arrived to Detroit, one of the first foundations he noted was building depth. How does the depth this year compare to last year? Did the Lions get better in this area?
Considering the pile of hogwash that largely comprised the Lions linebacker position last year plus the return of Deandre Levy, this position was somewhat of a softball lob for Quinn. While I do not feel that he knocked it out of the park or anything like that, he only needed to drive in a run and he did the right thing by ensuring the Lions have depth for multiple scenarios. This year the Lions should be better prepared all around.
Let’s look at some of the situational roles required for the linebackers to play in the Lions’ scheme and how each role stacks up to the its counterpart in 2015.
For reference, the Lions’ linebacking corps in 2015 consisted of Stephen Tulloch, Josh Bynes, Tahir Whitehead, Travis Lewis, Kyle Van Noy, Julian Stanford and to a lesser extent Brandon Copeland. In 2016, the corps should feature Deandre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Josh Bynes, Kyle Van Noy, Antwione Williams, possibly Jon Bostic and to some extent Miles Killebrew.
First Down: Base Defense 4-3
In 2015 the Lions lacked the stoutness up the middle of the defense that they had with Ndamukong Suh and a healthy Deandre Levy and Stephen Tulloch on the field in 2014. As a result, Teryl Austin’s defense was no longer getting teams into early desperate down and distance as often. Instead the Lions had fielded a mix of a past-expiration Stephen Tulloch, Josh Bynes and Tahir Whitehead and sometimes Travis Lewis and Kyle Van Noy which many times allowed gash plays.
Only two of the above players proved to be at least somewhat capable for this role in Josh Bynes and Tahir Whitehead. Stephen Tulloch was still somewhat effective against the run but it was easy for teams (e.g. the Chargers) to audible out and send someone out into a short route. This turned out to be super effective and unstoppable vs. Tulloch. Travis Lewis was always more of a special teams player with limited effectiveness against either the run or pass.
In 2016, the hope is that Deandre Levy will be healthy. Levy is a heady, aware, and hopefully still athletic linebacker that is as good as you can ask regarding versatility for first down situations. Tahir Whitehead has proven, despite some inexplicable holdout of his play by the coaching staff, to be good in this area as well. Josh Bynes returns from last year as the incumbent starter at the other outside linebacker spot opposite Levy, unless Kyle Van Noy finally shows enough to unseat him.
Antwione Williams enters the mix with a similar skillset to Tulloch, a downhill thumper vs. the run with what should be better ability in pass coverage. I expect Williams to back up Tahir Whitehead in the MLB spot and either Kyle Van Noy or the newly acquired Jon Bostic to back either OLB spot. I have faith in Williams in this role and not so much in Van Noy or Bostic, but Whitehead’s versatility allows him to swing outside if needed as well, so there is depth in both cases.
Last year featured below average starters and incapable depth. This year the role will feature good starters and what looks to be capable depth, though somewhat slim.
Advantage: 2016 corps
Short Yardage: Run Stuffer
In his prime, Stephen Tulloch was a stud as a run stuffer, but as is the recurring theme here, that time is long past. Last year in short yardage, the Lions primarily featured Tulloch, Bynes, Whitehead, and Lewis against short yardage and the results were unspectacular.
Josh Bynes returns to provide capable skill in this department. Previously noted was that Antwione Williams, at a burly 6-3 240, has a similar skillset to Tulloch and that is especially noted when barreling downhill vs. the run. Compared to last year’s Tulloch, I think Williams is at worst a parallel in this department. If Deandre Levy has the same agility and explosiveness he did prior to his injury, that is a huge upgrade over Travis Lewis for this role and all others. If not, Tahir Whitehead should be able to provide what they need as well as a source of depth.
This role seems to be the least improved but also the role the Lions are hoping they have to suit up for the least. With improved early down play up the middle featuring a healthy Ngata and newly drafted A’Shawn Robinson, that should leave the Lions in the following role, nickel coverage, more often than not.
Advantage: 2016 corps
2nd/3rd and Long: Nickel Coverage
Lions fans likely want to forget about how well the linebackers did against the pass last year and for good reason. The corps in pass coverage, even though just two linebackers are needed in nickel formations, was fuel for nightmares. Inexplicably the Lions would not field Tahir Whitehead early in the season and the absence of he and Levy left Tulloch and Bynes as the coaches’ choice for this role. This pair quickly proved to be a feast for agile wolves like the aforementioned Chargers’ Danny Woodhead and Keenan Allen. This area was vastly improved once Whitehead started receiving time again, but Bynes is still a guy who you would rather not have to play in this scenario as he lacks both short area quickness and long speed to keep up with leaking running backs, slot types or many faster tight ends.
The potential of the 2016 group is much more exciting. If Levy can maintain the athleticism he had prior to the injury, the group should now primarily feature Levy and Whitehead. It was not long ago that Levy had a six interception season along with fifteen pass deflections in 2013. Whitehead proved to be above average in this area the past two seasons and hopefully the coaching staff is past whatever beef they had with him. Regarding depth, this is where it gets a little interesting.
Miles Killebrew should get at least some if not significant time as a nickel linebacker in 2016. He has the size required to still stop the run but also the long speed and quickness to man up vs. running backs and tight ends. The Lions should put his coverage skills to use in this role where they somewhat lack at the safety position. The hope for this role is that Josh Bynes does not have to see the field as Killebrew should make for an easy upgrade in coverage.
The corps of Levy, Whitehead, and Killebrew here should make for some positive entertainment as opposed to laughs of desperation brought on by Tulloch and Bynes in 2015. This group, which Quinn has said should play 60-70% of the time, is miles ahead of last year.
Advantage: 2016 corps
With nickel defense being the most-improved group and the base defense/run-stuffing roles comprising the majority of the rest of the snaps, Lions fans should have some faith that 2016 will be a better year all around for linebackers. All three of the roles are improved both in the starting group and have at least one capable backup in case of injury. Yes, the return of a healthy Deandre Levy is a huge factor here, but Quinn has done a nice job of ensuring there is capable depth in all roles and ensuring at least a slight upgrade in these roles for the departing Tulloch and Lewis.
The newly acquired Jon Bostic is a wild card here because he has been well-rounded but below average. If he is able to be more than just a high potential player in Detroit, he could add another piece of depth to all three areas to make this a fairly special group.