Detrot Lions Remake Linebackers in Jim Schwartz's Image

Blue in GreerCorrespondent IJune 13, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 15:  Julian Peterson #59  of the Detroit Lions  grabs at the ball as Sidney Rice #18 of the Minnesota Vikings tries to recover it on November 15, 2009 at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The ball was fumbled by Adrian Peterson of the Vikings.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Look at that picture.

That's Lions linebacker Julian Peterson on the Vikings All-Pro WR Sidney Rice.

Seems to be doing a pretty good job of it too.

I've talked about the new faces in the secondary, I've even talked about Schwartz and his history a little.

We had a nice discussion on the pass pressure and how that should help. I need to get back into that later, but I wanted to talk about an often overlooked part of the pass defense, the linebackers.

First thing we have to know is Schwartz and Gun love their LBs. No other 4-3 team played as many snaps at LB as the Lions, and the Lions LBs actually had more plays than a few 3-4 teams like Baltimore and New England.

This isn't something new for them, ProFootballFocus analyzed 26 of the last 33 games in Schwartz' role as Defensive Coordinator at Tennessee and it was the same thing. There are a lot of linebacker snaps taken in this defense.

Also interesting is how they use those LBs. Last year the Lions were fifth with 1,319 snaps where the LB dropped into pass coverage. That's more than half a dozen 3-4 times, including the Packers, who played the same teams the Lions did.

The leader in pass coverage snaps by LB was Tennessee of course.

This is what Schwartz does, he plays a lot of base defense.

While the rest of the league is playing 50 percent or more nickle now, Schwartz in his last two years at Tennessee and last year with the Lions is around 30 percent nickle.

That's a pretty significant difference and he makes it up with linebackers in coverage.

Schwartz doesn't blitz a whole lot with the LBs, though the Lions did lead the 4-3 teams in pass rushes by LBs. This wasn't the case when he was at Tennessee and probably says more about the Lions' inability to get a pass rush out of their front four.

This means we have to consider the impact of the linebackers on the Lions pass defense and it might explain some of the moves they have made since Mayhew and Schwartz took this thing over.

One of their first moves last year was the Julian Peterson trade, and while losing Redding was some loss, when you say you will pay someone $17 mil a year, you want him.

We saw the 24.5 sacks in three years at Seattle and thought, blitzing LB. Mayhew and Schwartz saw a guy who made All-Pro based on his pass coverage.

In the end, we got a mix of both and he was a Pro Bowl alternate.

They are talking about restructuring that contract, but the Lions seem very happy to have him. Almost as happy with him as they are about the next move they made.

The next move was the 2009 draft and we have to count the whole draft as a move because of who they passed on as much as who they took.

If you follow the NFL draft you knew the Lions had to add a MLB somewhere along the line. Most of the mock drafts had them taking a LB with either the second first round pick or that top of the second round pick and with LBs like Mathews, Mauluaga, and Lairinuatis available it was a surprise to some when they went other ways.

By the way, if any of those names were misspelled it's because I promised myself I wouldn't learn how to spell their names unless we did draft them.

The even bigger surprise was when they took DeAndre Levy. There were many more established "thumper" prospects that Schwartz said they needed to add. Not only that, he was a reach on every prospect ratings sites.

But what did the Lions say about him?

He's a three-down linebacker.

In other words, if you can't cover, you can't play in this defense.

His first year had a lot of ups and some downs like we would expect from a rookie, but the Lions liked the ups and gave him the MLB job for this year.

At this point he looks like a home run and let's hope it stays that way as it will take a little time to develop at this level.

The next move looked like it had over the fences written all over it even before Mayhew swung the bat. Larry Foote coming home just had a real feel good story about it and it just seemed to scratch all the itches.

I'll bet if we ran the same poll I have here going into last season, Foote wins in a landslide.

Two things we overlooked, he was cut by the Steelers because of his pass coverage skills and more importantly, pass coverage skills mean a lot in this defense.

I'm sure Mayhew and Schwartz knew what they were getting into, but in the end it was a nice fill in while Levy got his feet wet last year.

While it wasn't a win/win, it wasn't a lose/lose either. Foote got his chance to prove himself and he brought a little professionalism to the locker room, even if it was for only one year.

The latest move was trading away Ernie Sims, and that may seem to be against the grain here with wanting pass coverage guys, but I'm not so sure.

We have seen the many missed assignments in the running game and I think our opinion of his coverage skills comes from...well, he's fast and he was a first round pick, so he must be able to do something; must be pass coverage.

I got a feeling that if he was blowing assignments in the running game, he was blowing them in the passing game too. It's just a lot harder to tell in pass coverage.

It's very hard to rate pass coverage and things like passer rating on an individual player have no value for me. Often, the best play a LB makes never shows up in the stats because he was just taking away a passing lane by getting a good drop.

These are things only the coaches know, did he get to the spot the coach wanted him at and at the time he wanted him there?

Any time a LB can get a QB to look somewhere else he is giving the DL just that much more time to get there and chances are the QB just lost his favorite option.

I get the feeling that the Lion linebackers weren't getting a lot of good drops last year and that may be why they were willing to let two of their top four linebackers go.

It's not totally clear on who is going to get those 1,400 snaps that Foote and Sims took last year.

Levy will pick up some of those snaps but how the other 1,100-1,200 snaps will split up between Follett, Dizon, and L Johnson remains to be seen.

Maybe adding Keith Bullock would make some sense. Letting him get 500-700 snaps while breaking in Follett does seem like a pretty good plan.

While this isn't a top-10 unit, it has a couple of exciting young players with Levy and hopefully Follett, and it is being created in Schwartz and Gun's image.

That image is to have three guys who don't come off the field, make their tackles, and are as likely to knock down a pass 30 yards downfield as sack the QB.

The Lions aren't there yet. Levy and Follett, maybe even throw in Dizon, have a long ways to go and there is a lot to learn. However, they should be a little better than last year just based on the expected improvement out of Levy.

But this defensive scheme needs good, solid, and consistent play out of their linebackers and that might be another year's experience away.

Unless Bullock can play near his pre-surgery level.

I know, just throwing it out there.


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