Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Long Time Coming

With all due respect to Chris Spielman, Bennie Blades and Kyle Vanden Bosch; it has been a very, very long time since the Detroit Lions have fielded a statistically elite defense. So long in fact, that you would have to travel all the way back to the 1983 season to find a unit that finished better than 10th overall in points against. That year, Detroit was witness to the last, great season of the team's famed "Silver Rush" defensive line and it's intimidating leader; defensive tackle Doug English. The defense would total 44 sacks, 16 fumble recoveries and 22 interceptions on it's way to surrendering the 2nd fewest total points in the NFL that season. They were big, they were mean and most importantly, they were talented enough to dominate NFL offenses where it matters most; on the scoreboard. Oddly enough my first season as a Lions fan came in 1984; at the ripe old age of 7 and just in time to see legendary tailback Billy Sims shred his knee in the first of what would be many, disappointing seasons. In each of the 29 years that I have followed the team, the defense has varied from average, to notably poor, with just enough absolutely putrid thrown in to make a grown fan cry. Unsurprisingly, this has coincided with an almost 3 decade long period where Lions management treated the defense as an afterthought, while building prolific, pinball-machine, offensive units. Over that time period, the blueprint I've known involves combining a couple of elite pass rushers with a relentless tackling machine, and a ball hawking defensive back who may or may not gamble recklessly to inflate is own stats. Otherwise, the Lions defense has been populated by unwanted, unremarkable and at times completely unacceptable players who lacked the size, strength or talent to create impact plays at the NFL level. As the old saying goes, "you get what you put in" and Detroit has spent a very long time plugging holes in it's defense with late round draft picks, aging journeymen and the occasional "street" Free Agent.

More disturbingly, even when the Lions have spent early draft picks to acquire defensive talent, they've trended towards undersized and over-hyped prospects who rarely improve with age. As ridiculous as it may appear to outsiders; the Lions seem to fancy themselves as "reckless innovators" who are capable of "outsmarting" the rest of the league. While much of this ineptitude has been blamed on he who shall not be named; the simple truth is that owner Bill Ford Sr likes to meddle with his football team and is committed to hiring the kind of men who'll allow him to do so. To this very day, the Lions still seem to value sexy over smart and flashy over functional; whether this is due to poor management or incompetent ownership is frankly, largely irrelevant. In light of this abhorrent historical track record, no sane individual could blame Lions fans for regarding any given draft class with apprehension and fear. At best we take a cautiously optimistic, "wait and see" approach to our newly drafted rookies; at our worst, we seem to delight in vilifying the franchise no matter who they pick. This is after all a fan base that coined the term "Lion-ized" and practically has a patent on the phrase "drinking the kool aid." It's a hard road, rooting for the objectively worst team in NFL history; years of losing have instinctively conditioned fans in Detroit to avoid ideas like hope and anticipation.

There are however, objectively measurable signs that the Lions are at long last starting to think like an NFL franchise; even on defense. It started with using 1st round picks in back to back drafts on massive, pocket destroying defensive tackles who are still quick enough to get to the quarterback. While everyone knows about the unstoppable force of nature that is Ndamukong Suh; fewer fans are aware of just how ridiculously talented his linemate Nick Fairley is as well. With two years in the league and his injury woes seemingly behind him; Fairley should be hitting his stride this season, which in turn will make it harder to neutralize Suh with the now customary double and triple team blocks opponents assign in his direction. Frankly it doesn't really matter who draws the extra blocker; both men excel at creating inside pressure and running down enemy quarterbacks as they try to escape. The Lions have also been fortunate to find a couple of key defensive cornerstones amongst the endless waves of jobless free agents Martin Mayhew has signed over the past few seasons. The team has clearly found it's obligatory, hard-tackling "Mike" linebacker in the undersized but utterly fearless Stephen Tulloch. The Lions have also latched on to cornerback Chris Houston, who is rapidly becoming one of the better coverage men in the league. Unfortunately at only 5'11" and 178lbs he's probably too small to ever become an elite, shutdown corner in the modern NFL. Despite size concerns with either man, there's no question that they are both extremely athletic. Finally, the Lions have again dipped into free agency and come up with two more, athletically gifted defenders; defensive end Jason Jones has the kind of length that makes defensive coordinators weak in the knees, while new free safety Glover Quinn is a converted cornerback with excellent field vision.

Of course, no matter how you slice it, the Lions were a 4-12 team last year with the 27th ranked scoring defense in the NFL; it's going to take a lot more than an improved Fairley and a couple of nice FA pickups to turn things around in Detroit. Modern NFL offenses are predicated on identifying weaknesses in the defensive front and attacking them at every opportunity. The goal is get the ball into open areas and allow some hyper-athletic, basketball player in pads to "make plays in space" for big yardage and backbreaking touchdowns. If the Lions field a unit with 9 players who can match the offense athletically, the Quarterback will simply focus everything on the 2 defenders who aren't quite up to snuff. This is the harsh new reality facing defensive coordinators like Gunther Cunningham; so far, he's found few solutions amongst aging stars and talentless try-hards he's been asked to work with. For a man who once fashioned defensive juggernauts with dominant athletes like Derrick ThomasNeil Smith and Dale Carter (in his prime), building with the league's scraps in Detroit must be almost unbearable. Frankly, Cunningham gets a bad rap in Lions land; he's still one of the greatest defensive minds in football, but nobody can paint the Mona Lisa with a box of broken crayons.

Fortunately for both Gunther and fans, it appears as though general manager Martin Mayhew is finally starting to realize what any moron with functioning eyes knew three seasons ago: that the Lions desperately need more size and talent on the defensive side of the ball. After years of zigging while the rest of the NFL zagged, the Lions have finally jumped on the "bigger, longer, faster" train of thought that has dominated the modern NFL draft. This year, Detroit used 3 of it's first 4 draft picks on defenders with lean, muscular bodies, long arms and blazing speed. More importantly however, all 3 players have the one quality the Lions have always seemed to lack on defense; the potential to grow into dominant athletes with proper weight training and NFL coaching. In fact, in each and every case the Lions passed on a more polished defender who had less impressive "measurables"; an approach that suggest there has been a drastic shift in Detroit's draft policy this season. Amongst the "Lions can do no right" crowd, this strategy has caused much hand-wringing and repeated declarations of the phrase "boom or bust"; a surprisingly worthless prediction since it essentially applies to every rookie who's ever been selected in the NFL draft. The simple truth is that projecting the future development of college kids remains an inexact science and "low risk" players can fail at this level for any number of reasons. In the NFL, safety is an illusion and athletic talent is king; especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Lions most promising rookie and, most recent first round draft pick is 6'5", 271lb rush end, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah. Frankly, the story of Ansah's rise from Ghanaian basketball hopeful to the number 5 overall pick in the NFL draft, is the stuff of legends. Of more importance to Lions fans however, will be whether or not Ansah's lack of football experience will outweigh his considerable athletic gifts; incredibly, Ziggy only began playing football in 2010 after failing to make BYU's basketball team for a second time. He played special teams at BYU as a junior before finding his way into all 13 games during his senior season; 9 as a starter. On the plus side, Ziggy flashed impressive versatility during his final year at BYU. He lined up at defensive end, defensive tackle and outside linebacker at various points in the season; registering 63 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and breaking up an eye-opening 9 passes. On the downside, Ansah only had 4.5 sacks last season and due to his late start in football; has no real track record of success in the pass rushing role the Lions clearly envision him performing. One thing that is certain is that Ziggy is a bona fied  athletic freak; it's a rare 270lb man who can run the 40 yard dash in 4.63 seconds. That's the kind of speed that kills plays 5 yards into the backfield and while Ziggy is still rawer than a plate full of sushi; by all accounts he's already one of the hardest working athletes in America. At this point, the Lions are doing their best to temper expectations but it's no secret that they expect Ziggy to be an impact defender immediately this fall.

Although Ansah may be Detroit's most talented rookie, when all is said and done it's entirely possible that Darius Slay will be the team's most important freshman in 2013-14. That is because Slay plays cornerback; a position the Lions have struggled to properly address for nigh on an eternity. With all due respect to Dwight Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green; Slay's combination of size, speed and his SEC pedigree, already make him the frontrunner to start opposite Chris Houston this fall. Darius checks in at 6'0", 192lbs and as the picture to the right clearly illustrates, he was practically born to play corner at the NFL level. He has long arms, big hands and narrow hips; pretty much the ideal build for harassing wide receivers and pulling down jump balls in a crowd. Additionally, Slay is an astute cover man who excels at using his length to attack the hands and arms of opposing receivers; forcing them to drop otherwise catchable balls. As if that weren't enough, Darius is also a genuine speed merchant. At the NFL's pre-draft combine he ran the 40 yard dash in an astounding 4.36 seconds; despite suffering from at least one torn meniscus in his knees! He's a capable and willing tackler, had strong enough hands to pull down 5 interceptions as a senior and can even work on special teams as a defensive gunner or return man. The catch with Slay is that he lacks elite footwork, may have benefited from playing opposite a better corner and of course, came to Detroit with the aforementioned knee problems that likely caused him to slip into the second round. Fortunately for the Lions however; these injury concerns appear to be greatly exaggerated and thus far Slay has shown the kind of mental attributes that suggest he's exactly the type of player his highlight reels say he might be. The keys for Slay this offseason will be adding a few pounds of muscle to his frame and absorbing enough of the Lions defensive scheme to give coach Schwartz the confidence to start him on the outside. That would allow Detroit to slide Bentley in at nickback and hold veteran Ron Bartell in reserve at all 3 spots; a situation that makes the most sense for the Lions from a pure talent perspective at a minimum. Although nothing is written in stone yet, my guess would be that if Darius Slay is healthy and motivated; he will easily win the starting job at some point during the preseason.

Finally, in the 4th round the Lions actually did add a player I consider a true "boom or bust" prospect in 6'7", 266lb defensive end Devin Taylor. This is because despite being possessed of a body that many defensive linemen would kill for; Taylor hasn't actually accomplished anything of note as a football player. His career high of 7.5 sacks in 2010 isn't much to write home about and the fact that he only registered 3 QB take downs in his senior season is downright disturbing. It isn't like Devin was attracting a lot of double teams during this time either; opposing offenses have had to contend with the likes of Melvin Ingram and Jadaveon Clowney during Taylor's time at South Carolina. Frankly, looking at Taylor's stat sheet the impression you get is that he's simply a big stiff that never learned how to actually play football. Then you notice his 4.72 second 40 yard dash, watch his highlight reels and wonder if they somehow got his stats mixed up with a former walk on. Ultimately, the key to solving the riddle that is Devin Taylor likely lies in exposing him to an NFL level strength and development program; while simultaneously addressing his terrible mechanics through proper coaching. When you watch Taylor on film, the first thing you notice is that he often stands straight up immediately upon the snap of the ball. As any highschool defensive line coach will tell you; this is basically a terrible idea because it not only costs you precious moments of reaction time, but it also makes it much easier for smaller players to block or contain you. Additionally, despite his fantastic measurements; a casual examination of Devin in football pads makes it clear that he's still far too skinny to dominate the way his height should allow him to. While I would certainly advise against getting your hopes up, if Taylor gains 25-30lbs, and if coaches can do something about his atrocious pad level issue; he might look a little bit like a certain "freak of nature" who has become intimately familiar to Lions fans. Or, he could spend 4 years getting knocked flat on his backside by players with better mechanics; while constantly frustrating Lions fans who're aware of his raw talent. To his credit Devin has been described as a hard worker with a tireless motor, so he's got at least some chance of realizing his vast potential. When your future outlook varies between a "less athletic Julius Peppers" and a "human blocking sled" however; you're going down in my book as a boom or bust prospect.

In the final analysis, it's still far too early to tell if the Lions have strengthened their defense enough to make the team serious playoff contenders in 2013-14. If I had to guess, I'd say that Detroit's roster has too many depth issues to field a top 10 defensive unit this upcoming season. Injuries are simply a fact of life in the NFL and while the Lions have certainly upgraded their starting talent; the jury is still very much out on the quality of Detroit's backups. Despite this, it is certainly heartening to see Martin Mayhew go out and get the team multiple athletes with the potential to physically dominate opposing offenses. Both Detroit's draft and the team's actions in free agency imply that the Lions are finally trying to build a defense the right way; with talent, athleticism and size. Perhaps, after years of attempting to outsmart the rest of the NFL, the Lions are finally learning to copy the ideas and strategies that have made other franchises so sucessful. That would be a welcome change for a Lions fanbase that has waited long enough for signs that "next year", finally will be different.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go "pour out a forty" for Jim "the Hatchet" David and all of the other smurf-sized, try-hards the Lions won't be employing anymore.

- Sportsball Chic


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