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What's Behind the Decline of DeAndre Levy

Jeff Risdon@@JeffRisdonContributor INovember 26, 2014

Nov 9, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions outside linebacker DeAndre Levy (54) before the game against the Miami Dolphins at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker DeAndre Levy was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in September. The strong first month built upon Levy's breakout 2013 campaign, where he emerged as one of the best all-around outside linebackers in the NFL

His outstanding instincts and quick reactions helped spearhead Detroit's strong start. Levy was a dynamic force in both run and pass defense. No. 54 registered 38 tackles, five tackles for loss, one interception among his four passes defended and a fantastic safety in the first month. 

Levy's fantastic early play even led this columnist to scribe a piece entitled "DeAndre Levy's Emergence Makes Lions Defense a Force to be Reckoned With." 

It would have been difficult to sustain that award-winning level of play. Sure enough, Levy's surging wave has waned. He's still flooding over opposing run games, where he might actually be improving if that's possible. But his flow in coverage and pass defense is no longer reaching the beachhead he established earlier. 

So what exactly has happened with Levy?

One of the major causes is easy to discern. 

Are Levy's struggles due to Tulloch not in the lineup? @JeffRisdon

— Brandon Semma (@BSem1113) November 25, 2014

Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch went down in the Green Bay game in Week 3 while celebrating a sack in Detroit's 19-7 smothering of Aaron Rodgers and the high-flying Packers offense. Tulloch's loss is a clear line of demarcation in Levy's season.

Pro Football Focus (subscription required) documented the decline clearly in its passing coverage chart. 

DeAndre Levy's Pass Coverage, Weeks 5-12
TargetsCompletionsYardsYACQB Rating
Buffalo1097470130.8
Minnesota65293186.8
New Orleans99674197.7
Atlanta5330977.1
Miami54281890.0
Arizona557480118.8
New England98645296.3
Pro Football Focus

Opponents have completed 43 of their last 49 passes in his direction after finding success on just 14 of the first 24 targets. The last two weeks have marked Levy's lowest scores in coverage since Week 13 of the 2012 campaign. 

The loss in New England highlights another one of the root causes to Levy's decline: lack of discipline.

Part of what made Levy so effective early on was his ability to never take himself out of position. Even when passes were completed against him, he was almost always in prime position to quickly clean up the play. 

That positional discipline and awareness are not so evident lately. Here's a play where New England took advantage.

NFL Game Rewind

Levy starts out fine and initially is in great shape. He's responsible for the inside release for the tight end and the deeper middle of the zone, and his positioning here (circled) is ideal. 

NFL Game Rewind

The problem here is Levy's overreacting to quarterback Tom Brady, who is adeptly manipulating him with his eyes. Levy not only loses track of his immediate coverage responsibility right next to him (No. 2), but he flees the middle of the field and opens up the deeper passing lane for Brady to find the backside receiver (No. 1). 

Opponents have divined how well Levy plays the ball and reads the quarterback, aggressively going after throws in his direction. They're using his aggressiveness against him, as Brady did here. 

Another issue comes from playing more zone defense. The rash of injuries at nickelback have forced defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to use zone coverage more frequently to help compensate for the lack of talented manpower. 

Levy is much more comfortable playing in man coverage. He's just not as instinctive when required to play more passively in zone. This play from the New Orleans game is a perfect example. 

NFL Game Rewind

The way the Saints align here, with no wideout split to the bottom, indicates cornerback Rashean Mathis has the responsibility to carry the tight end down the field or outside. Levy's job is to handle the back flaring out or shallow crossing routes from the other side.

NFL Game Rewind

The tight end breaks outside. Mathis is in perfect position, which should allow Levy to recognize he needs to pick up running back Travaris Cadet on the circle route. He's looking right at it in this screen shot.

NFL Game Rewind

Instead of attacking the underneath route, Levy drifts backward. Drew Brees hits Cadet for an easy completion and gives the runner a lot of space to operate. Cadet's poor choice of breaking toward the inside after the catch is the only reason this play didn't result in a much bigger gain. 

This issue was also evident in the New England game.

On this play, Levy starts in ideal position to handle his coverage responsibilities, indicated in blue spokes off the encircled linebacker. The corner (red) has deep and outside containment over Rob Gronkowski, while the inside linebacker (yellow) is responsible for anything between the tackles.

NFL Game Rewind

Inexplicably, Levy immediately abandons his perfect pre-snap positioning. He darts to the middle, nearly running into his fellow linebacker. This opens up an easy throwing lane for Brady to find Gronk breaking inside. The throw goes right through where Levy started the play. 

NFL Game Rewind

All Levy had to do was stand still, and this play doesn't work. There was no earthly reason for him to abandon his post. Even worse, he cheats away from New England's best weapon. If anything, he needs to err on the side of overplaying Gronk, not making it easier for Brady to connect with the stud tight end. 

Levy is clearly more comfortable in man coverage, but injuries at cornerback and linebacker have forced the Lions to play more zone recently. Perhaps he is trying to help compensate for the loss of Tulloch and both slot nickelbacks Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson by trying to do too much.

Detroit is fortunate in that even a declined Levy still represents one of the better 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. He's still fantastic in run support, earning the top run grade from PFF and still holding strong at second overall. His presence forces opposing offenses to plot strategy around him. 

Unfortunately for Detroit, they have been finding successful strategies. It's now incumbent upon Levy and his defensive coordinator to make the next move and get Levy back to being an all-around force. The potential is certainly still there. 

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