One of the unknowns that comes with the coaching change in Detroit is the potential for a scheme change on defense.
For years the Lions have run Jim Schwartz's and Gunther Cunningham's version of the 4-man front. Detroit used a Wide 9 alignment with the front line and spent the majority of snaps with just two linebackers on the field.
Yet a new coach might want to change the base scheme. It's a valid concern with Ken Whisenhunt, who many consider the top candidate for the position.
As Ian Rapaport of the NFL Network noted recently:
Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 2, 2014
When Whisenhunt was the head coach in Arizona, his teams ran a 3-man front on defense. He ran through various defensive coordinators, but always stuck with the 3-4 alignment as his base package.
This has led to some consternation about what might happen should Whisenhunt land the job.
If he wants to switch the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, does Detroit have the personnel to pull it off quickly?
The Lions should be fine at defensive end. Ndamukong Suh has the quickness and brute strength to make an exceptional 5-technique lineman. Instead of lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard as he does in the current scheme, Suh would slide outside to shading the tackle's outside shoulder.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller created a handy graphic to break down the alignments:
Not all 3-man fronts are the same, however. Some call for the ends to line up as more of a 4-technique, or have the strong-side end (the one with the tight end) playing a 5-technique and the weak-side end sliding to a 4-technique.
That's primarily how Whisenhunt's first defensive coordinator in Arizona, Clancy Pendergast, approached the front.
Suh has the build to handle any defensive line assignment. In fact, he could explode a la J.J. Watt by moving further outside, where his strength presents a bigger problem to opposing tackles.
The other end spot should be fine as well. Jason Jones has made his career by being a hybrid end/tackle, playing on the edge in the base defense and sliding inside as a nickel-package rusher. As a 5-technique, he's splitting the difference between the two positions.
Jones is a little light at his listed 276 pounds, but his frame could easily add a few more pounds of bulk. As long as his injured knee heals properly, he should transition nicely if needed.
Of course, one of the variations on the 3-man line is to play the ends wide. Here's an example of Cleveland lining both ends up far outside the offensive tackles, with the two inside linebackers filling the wide inside splits.
In that configuration, it's easy to see Ziggy Ansah lining up at one end, Jones at the other and with Suh playing the nose.
Nose tackle is the biggest issue up front. While Nick Fairley has the beef to handle playing heads-up on the center, being an anchor is not his style. Staying true to his gap has never been a strong suit.
Shading him to one side, almost as a 1-technique as he primarily has played under Schwartz, is a viable possibility. It would require a more attacking style than most 3-4 coordinators typically deploy.
One way that could work is if Whisenhunt brings along his second defensive coordinator from Arizona, Ray Horton. Most recently Cleveland's defensive coordinator, Horton is noted for his aggressive tactics and unconventional looks. The picture above is but one example.
Reserve tackle C.J. Mosley could fit the bill as a more traditional nose tackle. As Pro Football Focus (subscription required) notes, Mosley grades out very well as a run defender.
The potential of using Mosley as the anchor inside on run downs and rotating in Fairley as a pass rusher does offer some intrigue.
Perhaps the larger issue would be Fairley's willingness to make the change. He is entering the final year of his contract, and playing on the nose would dramatically cut back his pass rushing opportunities. Sacks tend to equal cash for defensive linemen, so the move could potentially cost Fairley loads of free-agent moolah.
The larger issue is linebacker. Going to a 3-4 front would be a radical change for a team which uses just two linebackers.
Worse, neither Stephen Tulloch nor DeAndre Levy are effective pass rushers. The two returning linebackers would man the inside positions, where the game is more about making plays between the tackles.
Levy would be fine. His coverage skills and ability to range outside should allow him to thrive. Like Suh, he might even look better in the different scheme.
Tulloch's ability to change is questionable. Inside backers in a 3-man front are more exposed to blockers, and shedding blocks is not Tulloch's forte.
He's very good at knifing around occupied blockers and making plays. But in the different scheme, those blockers will be occupied not by four linemen in front of him, but rather seeking Tulloch himself out unencumbered.
The outside backers are an even bigger issue. Ansah and his eight sacks as a first-round rookie are tailor-made for playing exactly how Schwartz used him.
It's not so much that he cannot handle the physical requirements. He's got the quickness, length, and power to strongly emulate perennial Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys. The problem is that Ansah is still fairly new to the game.
Moving him to a new position sets back his learning curve. He was finally settling into a groove as not just a pass rusher but a strong all-around defender as his rookie season progressed. Ansah earned positive run defense scores from PFF in five of his final six games.
Maybe that ability to quickly assimilate would translate well to moving outside. Playing the Wide 9 is not all that different from playing as an outside backer in terms of assignments at the line.
This is where having versatile athletic talents like Suh, Jones and Ansah comes into play. Here's another look from Horton's Cleveland defense last season. This one uses two tackles playing in traditional 4-man line spots, but outside linebackers flanking instead of ends.
Using creativity like this is something the Lions should embrace. Even if the new coach sticks with a base 4-man front, mixing in wrinkles like this would help keep offenses off-balance.
Of course, that still leaves one other outside linebacker spot. That player is not currently on Detroit's roster. It would require either an early draft pick or a free agent acquisition, though cap limitations will keep the Lions from chasing the most prominent free agents.
Another option would be to trade Fairley to a team making the switch in the opposite direction, from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Interestingly, Cleveland might be doing just that, as Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com notes:
The Browns are very interested in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin for their head coaching vacancy, and are expected to hire fired Lions coach Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator, league sources have told CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora.
Right now it's much ado about potentially nothing to fret over any defensive change. Still, it's nice to know the Lions do have some pieces in place to make the switch to the 3-4. Depth and experience at linebacker would be the biggest issues.
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