The Detroit Lions' New Defensive Playbook: If Nothing Else, Different

Dean Holden@@Dean_HoldenAnalyst IMay 16, 2009

ALLEN PARK, MI - MAY 01:  Head coach Jim Schwartz of the Detroit Lions looks on during rookie orientation camp at the Detroit Lions Headquarters and Training Facility on May 1, 2009 in Allen Park, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 2009 NFL season is still more than three months away, but the Detroit Lions have already succeeded.

New management, a new head coach, and new coordinators on both sides of the football mean the Lions have, if nothing else, succeeded in making changes.

To most teams, change doesn't mean much. Many times, change can be bad, even scary (Denver fans, are you scared of Josh McDaniels yet?).

To the Detroit Lions, four months removed from an 0-16 season, any change is a welcome change.

Perhaps the most welcome change to the Lions, aside from last season's removal of maligned general manager Matt Millen, is a change in defensive philosophy.

Head coach Rod Marinelli and defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the progenitors of Detroit's red-headed version of the Tampa-Two defense, are gone, and their defensive philosophy has left with them.

The Tampa Two led Detroit to three horrid defensive seasons, ranking 28th in the league in yards allowed in 2006, and dead last in 2007 and 2008.

The 2008 season nearly took the Lions' defensive futility into the record books, as they finished 16 points shy of the 1981 Baltimore Colts' record for most points allowed in a single season (533).

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The Tampa Two can be an effective scheme if the personnel is right, but (as the 2008 season showed) disastrous if it is not. A blend of the Cover Two and Cover Three, it drops two members of the secondary, usually safeties, into deep zone coverage, and retains the middle linebacker to cover mid-to-deep routes over the middle of the field.

The scheme is designed to protect against big plays, often at the expense of conceding short-yardage plays in an expanded amount of space left by the middle linebacker underneath.

The middle linebacker, in an effective Tampa Two system, is the linchpin, and is expected to be an excellent tackler and good cover linebacker. He should have above-average speed and great instincts and play reading skills.

Paris Lenon, the Lions' primary Tampa Two middle linebacker, was a poor tackler who was as skilled in pass coverage as he would be as a spinal surgeon. His speed was average at best, and he read each play as though it were a dissertation on quantum physics.

Whether you blame the personnel or the scheme, the Tampa Two was bad in Detroit, and the new regime has done away with it.

New defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has already expressed his distaste for zone schemes, and his time running a Tampa-Two system in Kansas City were among his worst years as a coordinator.

In Detroit, he will have the opportunity to return to his own philosophy: pressuring the quarterback and playing aggressive, hard-hitting football via blitzing. In his own words, he wants the Lions' defense to "go after people."

If I'm not being too subtle, try to figure out whose influence it was to draft Zach "I want to hit people and take them out of the game" Follett in the seventh round.

Cunningham said, after the Lions' rookie minicamp in early May, that Follett "has the right attitude. He wants to kill you everyday." That is what Cunningham likes in his players.

Of course, Follett may not even make the active roster, and Cunningham may not have full run of the defense, but he and head coach Jim Schwartz agree on enough things to prevent any real clashes in philosophy.

Though he puts a strong emphasis on running the ball and stopping the run, Schwartz's defensive philosophy can best be described as "elastic."

I'm not talking about the "bend but don't break" mantra heard so often in Detroit last season as part of the Tampa Two, which quickly turned into "bend, break, break again, and get thrown onto a campfire."

What I mean is that Schwartz changes his philosophy to fit his opponent, a skill he apparently learned from his early days as a scout learning from Bill Belichick.

"If it's a good run team, force them to throw the ball to win. If it's a good pass team, force them to run the ball to win," Schwartz said in his introductory press conference in January.

This will be a major change from the solidified philosophy from last season, where the Lions' defense and opposing offense met at the corner of "bend but don't break" and "take what the defense gives you," creating "take whatever you want, the broken defense will give it to you."

The biggest problem with the transition from the Tampa Two to Schwartz's hard-nosed philosophy, which includes getting bigger and stronger, is in personnel.

The Tampa Two places a premium on speed in its players, which typically means they end up undersized by league standards.

Schwartz certainly appreciates speed on defense, but he turned Albert Haynesworth into a $100 million man by making him a dominant two-gap player, because he is 320 pounds of driving force who overpowers his opponents.

The Lions' defensive tackles in 2008, Cory Redding and Chuck Darby, both weighed in south of the 300-pound mark, and they lacked the agility to make up for their small stature, so they consistently got pushed around at the point of attack, opening up running lanes wide enough for a phalanx of running backs.

The Tampa Two formation did little to assist the flailing run defense, as its expectations that the line can cover its gaps reasonably well on run plays exposes a sub-par defensive line.

The only immediate backup for the defensive line when it gets beat is the middle linebacker, assuming he has read the play properly, has put himself in position, and can make the tackle. Of course, on the rare plays Lenon actually put himself in position to make the tackle, he usually missed it.

The result of this perfect storm? The Lions gave up over 170 yards a game on the ground in 2008.

Schwartz has already gone to work making his defensive squad bigger in the middle, bringing in veteran Grady Jackson as, if nothing else, a big body to take up some space. He also has fourth-round pick Sammie Lee Hill to work with, a 300+ pound tackle considered to have great physical skills, but much to learn before he is productive in the NFL.

The most high-profile move Schwartz made concerning the defensive line is trading away Cory Redding for Pro Bowl strong-side linebacker Julian Peterson. Though Redding had become a solid player, Peterson brings with him an element that Cunningham will enjoy greatly in 2009: pass rushing skills.

In the passing game, the Tampa Two generally considers "blitz" to be a dirty word. It relies on the front four to provide most or all of the pressure on nearly every down. Cunningham, of course, is a big fan of dirty words, and "blitz" is one of his favorites.

Under Cunningham, expect to see Peterson coming in to provide quarterback pressure on passing downs, possibly even playing a hybrid role between strong-side linebacker and defensive end.

Weak-side linebacker Ernie Sims, who Cunningham said is playing "with his eyes" and more instinctively outside the Tampa Two, will likely get a few glimpses of the quarterback, as well. "I see him blitzing," the German-born coordinator said in an early May press conference.

No surprise there. Given Cunningham's reputation, there likely isn't anybody on the defensive side of the ball he doesn't see blitzing if the conditions are right.

This is the new philosophy. The Lions' defensive playbook will have "blitz" written somewhere on every page, and zone coverage will be the exception rather than the rule.

Is this a change for the better? Nobody will know until Sept. 13 in New Orleans, but for now, Lions fans will take any change they can get.

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