Detroit Lions: Why Gunther Cunningham's Defense Will Be the Difference in 2012

James Van Etten@jbvanettenContributor IJune 20, 2012

Detroit Lions: Why Gunther Cunningham's Defense Will Be the Difference in 2012

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    The offense of the Detroit Lions receives most of the positive publicity, but if they are going to improve on last year’s surprise season, it will be the play of Gunther Cunningham’s defense that will be the difference.

    The Lions offense was not the problem last year. They exploded for almost 400 yards and averaged nearly 30 points per game. “Forward Down the Field” felt like it was on a continuous loop compared to years past when Jason Hanson’s right foot accounted for most of the team’s points.

    The biggest problem last year was the defense, and heading into 2012, it will be the defense that determines how much improved the Detroit Lions will be.

    Gunther Cunningham has his hands full with a defensive unit filled with young players who are still rough around the edges, but returning 10 of 11 starters, the potential is there for vast improvement.

    Following are five key areas for the defense that if they all fulfill their promise, just may be the panacea needed for the Detroit Lions to finally reach the Super Bowl.

Fatherly Figure

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    Good coaches must be able to teach Xs and Os; great coaches are able to teach and manage personalities.

    Nick Fairley has had an offseason to forget, and behind closed doors he has assuredly received his fair share of tongue lashings from coaches and management, but I find it interesting that the outwardly-gruff Cunningham has taken the approach to be more fatherly with his young defensive tackle.

    As far as Nick is concerned, he knows this is going to be personal between the two of us. And I say that like a father. I'm going to do whatever I can to help him and I know the organization's done that and so has everybody else. He was surprised because I didn't tongue-lash him for about two hours. But I knew he'd already gotten that from eight different people. So I took the approach that I'm going to take care of him.

    Sometimes old school is still the best school, and sometimes compassion is necessary. Gunther is showing he understands barking is not always the best medicine and there is a time to listen and reflect.

    With Cunningham in his corner, Fairley should get his head right, and together with Ndamukong Suh could form the most devastating DT combo in the league if…

Resurrection of Ndamukong Suh

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    The House of Spears will once again be the dominant playmaker we all drooled over during his rookie campaign.

    Suh had a rookie season unlike any other defensive lineman in recent history, but his sophomore year was a major disappointment.

    All his stats were down, and even the most novice of fans could see him often get trapped out of plays. Eventually his frustration got the best of him in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers.

    This is where Cunningham must improve his defensive scheme by making Suh the defense’s version of “Where’s Waldo?”

    “I’m going to move him all over the place now.” That is the battle cry from Cunningham early in the offseason as he has vowed to move Suh around more this year and take the bullseye off of his defensive standout. 

    Having the best defensive lineman line up in the same spot every snap was easy to scheme against, and so far in OTAs Suh has lined up at the opposite tackle and defensive end.

    The 14th highest-paid athlete in the world is entering his third year in the league, and Cunningham feels Suh can put the transgressions of last year behind him and this will be the year everything comes together for No. 90. 

     Al Davis always put three fingers up. He said, ‘Son, some day you’re going to learn it takes three years how to learn and act to play in this game,’ and he wasn’t wrong. You can’t give up just because a guy takes a wrong turn. You just gotta smack ’em upside the head or you gotta love ’em.

    Gunther was speaking of Fairley in the quote, but it also applies to the talented Suh as he dropped $36 million into his banking accounts last year. I think Gunther will choose the latter and give some love to the Subway/Omaha Steak spokesman.

    Ndamukong will put "The Stomp" and his Portland driving record behind him this year and prove to every one, including Pete Priscoe, that 2011 was an aberration. Thanks Petey, you've poked the bear with your ridiculous statement, and the Lions coaching staff and the fans thank you.

    If Detroit advances in the playoffs this year, Ndamukong Suh will be a major contributor.

Contract Years

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    There’s nothing that motivates a professional player more than the last year of his contract.

    Projected defensive starters Cliff Avri, Aaron Berry, Louis Delmas, Justin Durant, Chris Houston and DeAndre Levy will all be free agents in 2013 and will be looking to cash in, either with the Lions or one of the other 31 teams in the league.

    Additionally, key reserves Sammie Lee Hill, Lawrence Jackson and Jacob Lacey will also hit the free-agent market.

    You may love the players, but it’s safer to cheer for the name on the front rather than the name on the back. The NFL is a business, and all players are personal corporations looking to maximize revenues.

    Gunther Cunningham should have little difficulty motivating his defense in 2012. Along with these players in the final year of their deals, Gunther will have the veteran leadership of an aging Kyle Vanden Bosch who realizes he doesn’t have too many more kicks at the can, and a financially secure Stephen Tulloch to help keep the young players motivated and focused.

    With so many players heading into a contract year, expect a spirited effort from all, not only wanting to win for the team, but to better their financial portfolios as well.

    Energy like that has a tendency to feed off of itself, and as the wins pile up, the dollar signs will get bigger and a snowball effect will be created.

Can They Cover?

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    Now what is Cunningham going to do with all those green cornerbacks?

    Gunther has gone on record saying Aaron Berry is ready to be a starter this year, as Tim Twentyman tweeted this quote.

    Cunningham on Berry: "This guy can play. He's one of the finest cover guys I've seen in a long time."

    Although I’m still not fully on board, I'll defer to the man entering his 20th year as an NFL coach and accept the fact that Berry will be the starting corner opposite Chris Houston to begin the year.

    But with the addition of Jacob Lacey and drafting three more corners, it’s obvious there will be some silver dollar eyes in the defensive secondary when the opposition goes four or five wide on the Lions.

    Who will be the nickelback? The smart money is on Lacey, but Bill Bentley or Chris Greenwood could move into that spot with a strong camp.

    Either way, Cunningham’s hair should continue to trickle out as Detroit must live with the mistakes of its young secondary, but it will be up to the Lions’ defensive coordinator to minimize the damage in the back by making sure the front-four get to the quarterback.

    If the third-year theory applies to Berry and he does become a legitimate starter, along with the return of a healthy Louis Delmas, it's possible the weakest link of the defense might be stronger than many will foresee.



Can They Stay Opportunistic?

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    Like Gene Hackman requested of Jon Favreau in The Replacements, “Get me the ball.”

    The Lions were one of the best defenses in 2011 at creating turnovers. They had 13 fumble recoveries, third in the league, and were fifth in the league with 21 interceptions.

    More importantly, they returned seven of those turnovers for touchdowns and instantly swung momentum.

    Cunningham’s defense is built on aggressive play, getting to the quarterback, creating havoc and making “splash” plays.

    That mentality for a young team will cause turnovers, but it will also create easy opportunities and the numbers showed this with the Lions giving up 367 yards and over 24 points per game in 2011, both good for the bottom third in the league.

    But here’s the silver lining: If you take a look at third-down conversion percentages, the Lions rank third in the league at 33 percent.

    What this tells me is that the talent is there; it’s a matter of further educating the young players and getting them more comfortable in the system while staying focused on every play. Remember, there was no offseason last year with the lockout.

    Another year in Cunningham’s system should show a marked improvement for many of the young players on defense. If they can continue to be opportunistic and create turnovers, the combination should produce more consistent defensive play.