Detroit to Turn up the Defensive Heat: Do They Have the Personnel?

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Detroit to Turn up the Defensive Heat: Do They Have the Personnel?
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Lions' new defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham recently said he plans on getting much more aggressive on defense. 

“One of the things I’ve always believed in is high blitz,” said Cunningham. “Up to 40 percent in a game, which is off the charts for most people—but that’s what I believe in. I think you have to keep the quarterback nervous all the time.”

Now, blitzing 40 percent of the time isn't necessarily "off the charts" in the NFL.  Teams like the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Pittsburgh Steelers have had great success from constantly bringing the blitz.

Cunningham is a leftover from the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was forced by then head coach Herm Edwards to run a Tampa Two defensive scheme.  The Chiefs had a record-low 10 sacks last season because their personnel didn't necessarily match the scheme.

In comparison, the Lions racked up 30 sacks while running a similar scheme. 

Now, Cunningham finally has the opportunity to run the kind of defense he wants.  The question is, does Detroit have the proper personnel to effectively blitz? 

Let's take a look at some of their key defensive players.

Dewayne WhiteDefensive End6'2", 273 pounds

White led the team in sacks last year by compiling 6.5 sacks in only 12 games.  He also forced three fumbles and snatched an interception.

That is the good.  The bad is that White has never started a full season of games for any team he has played on.  In six NFL seasons, he has only racked up 195 tackles, 27 sacks, and two interceptions.

We're not exactly talking about an Osi Umenyiora or a DeMarcus Ware here, but there seems to be some potential at least.  White has the explosiveness to get to the edge quickly, but he needs to work on his footwork and strength.

 

Cliff AvrilDefensive End6'3", 260 pounds

Avril started only four games his rookie season, but still managed to come in second on the team in sacks with five.  He also forced four fumbles. 

Avril is still learning, but he has shown the potential to be a dominant edge rusher for years to come.  With the right defensive scheme, one that utilizes his speed and technique, Avril should flourish.

In Cunningham's scheme, Avril should have plenty of opportunities to prove himself when he has help from the linebackers and safeties in taking on blocks.

 

Grady JacksonDefensive Tackle6'2", 345 pounds

Heading into his 12th professional year, Jackson joins the Lions after spending last year with the Atlanta Falcons.  His size and athleticism give him an advantage when it comes to stuffing the run, but without talent around him, he has never been the best at pressuring the quarterback.

What Jackson will do for this team is bring a commanding veteran presence to the defensive line, which will help the younger guys (such as Avril) develop. 

Opposing offensive lines will have trouble with Jackson's size and may double block him in passing downs, which will open up opportunities for the blitzers to get pressure.

 

Julian PetersonLinebacker6'3", 245 pounds

Last year was Peterson's worst in the past three seasons, and yet he still managed 86 tackles, five sacks, and four forced fumbles. 

Peterson has made a name for himself by being a premier blitz backer, using his dominant speed and downhill power to catch offensive lines off guard and get in the quarterback's face.

In other words, he's the perfect player for Cunningham's system.  Linebackers are the players that are most often called on to blitz due to their close proximity and their speed.  Look for Peterson to notch another seven to 10 sacks next season.

 

Ernie SimsLinebacker6'0", 230 pounds

Sims has been thought to be the best defender on the Lions all three seasons he has been there.  He has been the model of consistently, always able to get at least 100 tackles each season, but he isn't exactly what I would call a premier blitz backer.

In his defense, he has been called on to do a little too much, which has limited the amount of sacks he could get, but 2.5 in 3 seasons isn't all that impressive.  His size concerns me a bit as well.

I would say Sims is the wild card on the whole team.  If he is called on to blitz more often, he certainly has the potential, I just question his strength and technique.

 

Daniel BullocksStrong Safety6'0", 212 pounds

Bullocks got beaten quite a few times in the secondary last season, but a lot of that was because opposing quarterbacks had time to pick him apart and wait until their receivers got open. 

His 94 tackles were probably more of a product of how comfortable teams felt throwing against the Lions then his overall talent.

Sometimes safeties are called on to provide run support, or in certain cases, even blitz.  I think Bullocks does have the speed and finishing ability to burst through gaps and force quarterbacks to the ground or make bad throws.

I think he could be a solid option in Cunningham's aggressive scheme.

 

Louis DelmasSafety6'0", 202 pounds

At the collegiate level, Delmas was known as a hard-hitting, sure tackler.  So far, he has looked dominating in OTAs.  All that sounds great, but we don't necessarily know anything until he steps on the NFL field in full pads.

If he can be the enforcer in the secondary the Lions are hoping he becomes, he would be a second-round steal. 

In the blitzing game, I think he'd be more productive breaking off into coverage and using the opportunity to snag a couple of wayward passes.  On running downs, he'd be fast enough to come off the edge and wrap up the running back before he had an opportunity to get to the next level.

 

Overall, I think the potential is there for more sacks this season.  The corners the Lions acquired are good enough to cover man-to-man when they choose to blitz.  They added size and depth to their defensive line, but it's still a question mark heading into next season.

35-40 sacks is realistic, but only if Cunningham properly utilizes the talent he will have on the field. 

Still nothing compared to my Giants though.

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