In last year's historic season the Detroit Lions utilized a 3-4 defensive scheme for their front seven that was supposed to bear a passing resemblance to that of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, passing would be the operative word there.
They also used the Tampa Two coverage system in the secondary. On any other team this may have worked but for the most historically inept team in NFL history the Lions failed at it miserably especially with their total inability to stop the run. They gave up an NFL high 171.8 yards in an average game, and they weren't much better at stopping the pass either.
New head coach Jim Schwartz is coming from his previous job as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans who gave up a mere 93 yards rushing per game. He brings in an alternative scheme with a 4-3 alignment and a lot more man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
Like any system in football there are needs and there are certain positions where you need a specific style of player. One of the biggest differences between 4-3 and the 3-4 is the emphasis it puts on the defensive linemen to be fast and be able to out run the offensive line on the pass rush.
Like the 3-4 the linebackers have similar responsibilities in plugging the holes on running plays, but the middle linebacker is supposed to be able to blitz as well as plug holes and when he blitzes is supposed to create a mismatch for the normally slow center creating either a double team on him that will spring one of the defensive linemen loose to pressure the quarterback, or allow him to outrun the center to get to the quarterback.
In order for this to work the Lions need a solid middle linebacker and a sturdy quick defensive linemen who can get to the quarterback. They were able to pick up the former in Larry Foote from the Steelers, an inside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme.
Foote was superb in being able to stop the run but growing frustrated in Tomlin's wariness to let him blitz the quarterback often. The also picked up a strong side linebacker in Julian Peterson, most recently of the Seattle Seahawks. This five-time pro bowler will definitely help prevent any running backs from getting to the outside.
Unfortunately for the Lions there isn't as much to cheer about from the defensive line area, or in the secondary. Jared DeVries, for example, has been with them since 1999, the last time they made the playoffs, has averaged a little bit more than two tackles per game in his career.
In order to be a solid defensive end in this system he has to tackle a little bit more than that. Dewayne White has posted better stats and has shown some improvement over the past two years, but still needs a lot of work done.
The Lions have recently acquired a defensive end who could be capable of rushing the quarterback in Eric Hicks, a former all-pro player in 2002. Hicks has speed and proved it with 44.5 career sacks over the course of an 11 year career with Kansas City and the New York Jets, although he spent last year injured, if he is healthy this team might be able to work in Cliff Avril and Rudolph Hardie and other young players into the rotation.
The secondary has gotten a boost in Phillip Buchanon a starter corner at Tampa Bay who had 52 tackles and two interceptions including one for a touchdown last year. If he can be a shutdown corner for this Lions team it will enable the rest of their defense to sharpen up their skills and make room for improvement as the season progresses.
The most important thing for this team's turnaround is chemistry, if Schwartz can provide that on both sides of the ball they may be able to fulfill Kevin Smith's prediction of making the playoffs. If the offense can be able to control the clock it will allow the defense to work on the opponents and win ball games, and that is a huge improvement over a winless season last year.