Football strategy at the NFL level is so complex that it has the ability to trump all other variables. Great players fail in bad systems. Likewise, mediocre talent can succeed if put in a position to do so.
The concept of a team being over-matched by the system it runs was painfully clear while watching the Detroit Lions last season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Ernie Sims was lost, Keith Smith was confused and several other Lions defenders were downright frustrated while playing in the Tampa two defense. The fact that the Lions had a novice defensive coordinator in Joe Barry running the defense only compounded the team’s problems.
Even with last year though, a new era has begun in Detroit.
New head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham bring extended experience and improved philosophy to the Lions.
Cunningham has been in the coaching profession for nearly 40 years. He was in charge of running arguably two of the most dominant defenses in NFL history, the 1995 and 1997 Kansas City Chiefs. With Cunningham as the defensive coordinator in Kansas City, the Chiefs compiled an overall record of 42-22. He also has experience as a head coach with Kansas City and as a defensive assistant with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans.
Schwartz has also established a reputation as a bright defensive mind in the NFL. He spent the past three seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Titans.
The coaching duo will be implementing a base 4-3 defensive scheme, which will feature more blitz packages and nickel formations than the previous Tampa two system.
To ensure the defensive transition goes smoothly, the Lions have brought in several defensive veterans and refined the roles of many players left over from last year. Grady Jackson, Julian Peterson, Larry Foote, and Anthony Henry are a few of the new faces in Detroit this season.
All are expected to start.
Sims will retain his position as the starting weak-side linebacker but the additions of Peterson and Foote will take a lot of pressure of the former first round pick. In years past, Sims was expected to cover the field sideline to sideline and play against both the pass and the run effectively. Sims is coming off the worst statistical season of his career with just 71 tackles and one sack in 2008.
A major key for the Lions’ defense will be how Foote adapts to playing middle linebacker. He was an interior linebacker in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense, but will have to take on a more central role with the Lions. If Foote can adjust to the 4-3 system effectively, Detroit could have one of the top linebacker cores in the NFL.
Keith Smith was another player who did not fit the previous Tamp two system, but has a chance to succeed under the new regime. Smith was frequently used in run coverage last season and often found himself lost within zone pass defenses.
Schwartz has said he plans to use Smith as a man-to-man cover corner and that he will not play Smith at either of the safety positions. Smith had been rotating between safety and corner throughout his three seasons in the NFL.
On paper, the Lions defense looks to be a collection of veterans passed their prime and young players who have yet to reach theirs. But the new defensive philosophy could allow this team to succeed as a collective group.