Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Linebackers

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Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Linebackers
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We just finished our review of the defensive ends, which looks rather intriguing in its makeup. Mostly new faces with a nice blend of veteran newcomers and intriguing rookies. The defensive ends are all tall trees.

Your astute observations have vastly improved my Wide-9 acumen. Thanks!

Much like the O-line, we will be on tender hooks until we see the D-line at game-like speed with game-like friction.

Refer to my completely subjective depth chart as it stands today as a reference.

Now, we’ll examine the linebacker corps and see who they are and how they fit.

Another Trip Down Memory Lane

Is it just me, or does the LB corps seem like the second-class citizens of the Lions’ entire team?

I mean, it seems like forever since the Lions spent a first round draft pick on LB Ernie Sims back in “naught-six.”

The parade of underwhelming Lions’ second round draft picks reads like a Who’s Who of the relatively obscure. Since 2000, the Lions have selected Barrett Green, Boss Bailey, Teddy Lehman, and Jordon Dizon in the second round of the draft.

How’d that work?

During head coach Jim Schwartz’ reign, the Lions have spent literally hundreds of dollars (irony intended) on free-agent LBs like Bobby Carpenter (2010-11), Vinny Ciurciu (2009-10), Isaiah Ekejiuba (2010-12), Zack Follett (2009-10), Larry Foote (2009) and the oh so forgettable Julian Peterson (2009-10).

Some were actually decent special teams players.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A collection of buck-toothed, red-headed stepchildren if ever I saw one. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. Or, as Frank Caliendo  channeling Charles Barkley would say, “Turbl!”

End meandering soapbox rant.

Of Linebackers and the Wide-9

The Tennessee Titans went 13-3 in 2008 and had the best regular season record in the AFC. Schwartz was the defensive coordinator. Serving under Schwartz were current Lions assistants Jim Washburn (Lions D-line assistant) and Matt Burke (Lions LBs coach).

The Titans ran the Wide-9 base 4-3 defense. Their starting LBs were Stephen Tulloch (MIKE), Keith Bulluck (SAM) and David Thornton (WILL). A decent, but hardly splashy group.

It’s interesting to note that the Titans’ linebackers made zero QB sacks or interceptions during that great 2008 run. Also of interest is that three of the top-five leading Titans’ solo tacklers in 2008 were linebackers. The fourth was strong safety Chris Hope, who was recently signed by the Lions as a free agent.

The Lions linebackers in 2012 were Tulloch (MIKE), Justin Durant (SAM) and DeAndre Levy (WILL). They were the three leading solo tacklers on the 4-12 Lions team.

Unlike the Titans of 2008, the Lions LB corps chipped in with two sacks (Durant and Tulloch) and an interception (Levy) in 2012.

Now, it’s not uncommon for linebackers to appear among an NFL team’s top-five solo tacklers. However, the Lions, Panthers, Vikings and Patriots are the only 4-3 NFL defenses where three linebackers finished in the top-five of their respective team’s solo tacklers in 2012.

The Steelers, oddly enough, are the only 3-4 defense to have three LBs finish among their top-five solo tacklers. Go figure.

Huge numbers of solo tackles by the 2008 Titans and the 2012 Lions linebackers is no coincidence. It’s a function of the responsibilities of the linebackers in the Wide-9 scheme.

They are gap-filling, run-stuffers above all else in the Wide-9 scheme. They have few coverage responsibilities and seldom rush the QB.

The OLBs are charged with patrolling the five and seven-gaps in the Wide-9. The MLB will fill the three-gap not occupied by a defensive tackle.

When the Lions are in the nickel (a fifth DB) coverage, they will sometimes use the MLB in a “Tampa-2” look. Here, the MLB will drop into coverage, staying between the center of the field and the strong-side hash marks.

The OLBs will drop into the flat, or occasionally rush the QB if they haven‘t been replaced by a DB.

We’ll get into coverage schemes and the final piece of the Wide-9 puzzle when we examine the safeties.

Roster Considerations

Schwartz’ Lions will maintain six linebackers. Two MLBs (MIKE), Two LLBs (SAM), and two RLBs (WILL).

Going into training camp the Lions are carrying 10 linebackers.

According to Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com, the Lions worked Ashlee Palmer, Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis at the LLB position vacated when Justin Durant left for Dallas during free-agency.

Looking at my depth chart; the backups at all three LB positions looks very unappetizing to me.

The Linebackers

As usual, all statistics herein are provided by ProFootballFocus.com’s Premium Stats (subscription required) unless otherwise specified.

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MLB Stephen Tulloch

An eight-year veteran, Tulloch (5’11”, 240 pounds) is the captain and QB of the Lions’ defense. He calls out the assignments and communicates with the safeties pre-snap on coverages. He has three-gap to three-gap run responsibilities and middle zone coverage responsibilities in the nickel and dime packages.

Tulloch was the MLB for Schwartz’ Wide-9 defense in Tennessee until he followed his old defensive coordinator to Detroit as a free agent in 2011.

He’s in the second year of a five-year deal signed in 2012.

Tulloch has notched over 100 total tackles in three consecutive seasons, but like many of his teammates in 2012, Tulloch had a relatively quiet season. He had only one sack, two QB hits and only five QB pressures.

Tulloch missed a team-high 19 tackles, but led the team with 1,059 snaps played.

In coverage, Tulloch was targeted 65 times in 2012, giving up 50 receptions (76.9 percent!) for 350 yards and three touchdowns. He’s the fifth most targeted 4-3 MLB in the league after coming in 16th in 2011.

Offensive coordinators are going after Tulloch. They will continue attacking this soft spot until he proves that he can stop the abuse, or the Lions find a new MLB who can.

Tulloch had zero interceptions and three passes defended in 2012, and his QB rating against ballooned from 73.5 (2011) to 104.0.

For such an important position, Tulloch really needs to come back strong in 2013, or the Lions might be forced to look in another direction in 2014.

For those among you who feel that this opinion is overly harsh, consider that the MLB role isn’t scheme specific in the 4-3 and should be manned by a real stud in both run defense and pass coverage.

MLB Carmen Messina

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Messina (6’2”, 243 pounds) was signed in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. He made enough noise during training camp that he was signed to the practice squad.

Moving last year’s backup MLB Ashlee Palmer to SAM gives Messina a great shot at the MLB backup role. He’s a wrap-up tackler who eschews the highlight hits. He has good lateral agility and good downhill penetration in the gap.

Messina is always around the ball, but his downside is coverage skills, where he lacks natural instincts needed to read routes. He’s also very slow in his transition from coverage to run defense.

I will be watching Messina closely in training camp. He will have to make a step up in performance, or the Lions might find themselves in an emergency situation, scrambling to move a more experienced OLB back to the middle of the defense. A player like….

OLB/MLB Ashlee Palmer

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Palmer (6’1”, 236 pounds) was a UDFA who was signed by Buffalo in 2009, where he played 135 snaps at WILL and SAM LB. He was claimed off waivers by Detroit after the 2010 season.

It was a tumultuous 2010 season for the Lions’ linebackers. DeAndre Levy was the MLB after the Lions ejected—rather than released—Larry Foote. The OLBs were Julian Peterson (SAM) and Palmer at WILL.

It was Peterson, you’ll remember, who was benched during a home game against the Jets where the Lions held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. Peterson hit RB LaDainian Tomlinson about 10 yards out of bounds for a personal foul that turned the game around. The Lions lost, 23-20.

Palmer was like the little Dutch boy in 2010, plugging holes and starting at all three LB positions due to injury, or disciplinary reasons. He played 344 snaps (99 at MLB) and recorded one sack.

Palmer played only 18 snaps (all at MLB in 2011), making three solo tackles.

In 2012, Palmer played 119 snaps (only six at WILL), making seven tackles.

The Lions announced that Palmer would compete at LLB (SAM) in 2013. He’ll compete on an equal footing with second year players Whitehead and Lewis.

Palmer should be able to win the starting SAM role with a hand tied behind his back.

Dave Reginek/Getty Images

OLB DeAndre Levy

Levy checks in at 6’2”, 238 pounds. He was drafted by the Lions in the third round of the 2009 draft. His draft profile and analysis can be found here.

As a rookie, Levy played in all 16 games. He started eight games at SAM before moving to MLB, where he started the final two games and notched 19 of his 70 total tackles.

In 2010, Levy missed five games with a hamstring injury, but managed to play 749 snaps, making 68 total tackles (61 solos). This was the same right hamstring that prevented Levy from running drills at the NFL combine and his Pro Day workouts.

When Tulloch was signed in 2011 to start at MLB, Levy was kicked outside to WILL, where he collected 100 total tackles (86 solos) while missing 11 tackles. In coverage, Levy’s QBR against was a not so swanky 112.0.

Taking a look at some top-flight OLBs, that QBR against isn’t really as ridiculous as it seems. There are some numbers in the one-thirties!

In 2012, Levy managed a full schedule and played 729 snaps. Of the 43 OLBs that played over 293 snaps, Levy’s PFF rankings were 40th overall, 20th rushing the passer, 24th in coverage and 42nd against the run.

By comparison, Justin Durant’s ranking in the same categories were 18th overall, 34th rushing the passer, 37th in coverage and eighth against the run.

Did the Lions sign the right free-agent OLB when they had a choice between Levy or Durant?

OLB Tahir Whitehead

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Whitehead would have been the goat of the 2012 Lions draft class were it not for the alpha goat of the Lions‘ draft class, DE Ronnell Lewis.

It’s as if GM Martin Mayhew and everyone else in the Lions’ war room went out for a bite during the fourth and fifth rounds, and left the custodian in charge.

Whitehead is a no-cover run defense specialist who was expected to make a splash on special teams’ coverage units. Neither optimistic projection materialized in 2012.

Here is a typical pre-draft evaluation on Whitehead from NFL.com.

Whitehead saw action in seven games as a rookie. He was a special teams backup player on coverage teams who made five tackles and missed two.

I quail at the thought of those missed tackles on a coverage unit that was well beyond an epic failure.

With an offseason of preparation, who knows? Whitehead might stick when you consider the rather lackluster makeup of the LB corps as a whole.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Coverage skills? We don’t need no stinking coverage skills! This is the Wide-9, where OLBs are largely two-down players who exit to the sidelines if a passing play is even vaguely anticipated.

OLB Travis Lewis

Lewis (6’1”, 236 pounds) is an anomaly of sorts. He comes from an extremely rare collegiate 3-4 defense at Oklahoma, where he was a four-year starter on that great Sooners’ defense.

Lewis had a reputation for standing up ball carriers at the point of attack and driving them backwards into the turf.

He was a seventh round selection in the 2012 draft who looked as lost as any veteran Detroit LB in last year’s training camp. Yet, he made the roster.

Most of the Lions D-linemen run faster forty times than Lewis‘ 4.88. Here’s his NFL combine results and a fair analysis.

Like Whitehead, Lewis is another OLB wannabe. I’ll keep an eye on his progress, but I have my doubts.

If you aren’t headed for the Valium stash yet continue reading.

MLB/OLB Brandon Hepburn

Hepburn (6’2”, 240 pounds) was selected in the seventh round of this year’s draft, just nine spots removed from being “Mr. Irrelevant.”

He will try to make the roster as a special teams player and emergency LB.

MLB Jon Morgan

Morgan is 6’1”, 233 pounds. The UDFA recorded 72 tackles for the University of Albany and was an All Northeast Conference selection at MLB. He ran 4.88 and 4.96 40s at his Pro Day.

I have Morgan penciled in as a camp body. We shall soon see what he’s got.

OLB Alex Elkins

Elkins is 6’3”, 230 pounds out of Oklahama State. He turned in 4.70 and 4.72 forty times at his Pro Day before signing as an UDFA with Detroit.

Elkins is the largest LB on the training camp roster and a special teams hopeful. Considering his size and speed, Elkins has a good shot at making the practice squad, at least.

MLB Corey Greenwood

Greenwood (6’2”, 235 pounds) balled in Canada (Concordia College, Quebec) and was claimed off waivers by the Lions after being released by Kansas City.

The Chiefs signed Greenwood as an UDFA in 2010 after Greenwood passed on the CFL‘s Toronto Argonauts, who traded up to the third overall pick to select Greenwood in the CFL draft.

He was a third-string ILB in KC’s 3-4 defense and the backup long snapper. He played seven snaps as a rookie at MLB and saw 11 snaps on special teams.

Greenwood’s achievements were equally nondescript in his 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Being a long snapper could give Greenwood considerable leverage over Dylan Gandy if he can match Gandy's prowess at LS.

Conclusions

The OLBs in the Lions’ Wide-9 scheme have the responsibility for the five or seven gaps, and are primarily two-down players unless they play the “big” nickel role on third down.

Just about any TE going against a Lions OLB is a mismatch favoring the offense.

The MLB (Tulloch) is a three-down player who has three-gap to three-gap responsibilities in the traditional 4-3 sense. The MLB will sometimes drop into a “Tampa-2” coverage on third down.

Any receiver going against a Lions MLB in coverage is a mismatch favoring the offense.

The Lions released PFF’s higher ranked OLB Durant in favor of signing Levy. Was this purely driven by financial considerations for the cash-strapped Lions?

Will Ashlee Palmer be an upgrade over Durant at SAM?

Who will backup Levy at WILL? The choices aren’t very palatable unless Whitehead and/or Travis Lewis step up big time. The same, to a lesser extent can be said of the SAM backup.

We are seeing Tulloch’s ceiling at MLB and it’s not very high. Missed tackles and coverage woes plague the MLB.

MLB is arguably the greatest need for the Lions in the 2014 NFL draft, or perhaps a close second to a center. OLB43 would round out the Lions’ three greatest needs.

Researching this group, I looked for rays of sunshine, but found few. For the Lions’ LB corps it will continue to be “Same old Lions.”

A prospect that brings on waves of depression for a fan who grew up on a diet of Joe Schmidt, Wayne Walker and Carl Brettschneider.

Next Up: The Safeties

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