Hopefully, you all got to sit and watch the excellent slate of divisional round games this weekend like I did. There were some great matchups, huge upsets and some scintillating rematches. As I watched, I couldn’t help but notice a common denominator… defense. Most of these teams, especially those that won, played great defense this weekend and throughout the year. The Panthers were the only disappointment, but they played well on defense during the regular season (and how can you play great when your quarterback coughs up the ball six times for you?) So watching all of this great defensive play this weekend, it kind of forced me to re-evaluate what I think the most pressing needs this off-season should be.
I think that you all know that my opinion thus far has been for the Lions to draft a quarterback with the first pick. That opinion is obviously contingent on any of the potential draftees grading high enough to warrant that spot. I won’t renege on my comments. That is still my opinion and little will change that between now and April. But as I watched this week’s games, my thoughts shifted to defense and how these playoff caliber teams operated. A little disclaimer as to not get too crazy here… most of these teams still had a better than average quarterback. Manning, Roethlisberger, Warner, McNabb, Delhomme, Rivers… these guys are all pro bowl quarterbacks. You still need an above average quarterback to be consistent winners. I will never change that opinion. But I think that the single most important piece of the Lions transformation will be HOW they assemble this defense. It should, no doubt, be the single biggest priority of the off-season. No, I haven’t had a complete change of heart in my team structure philosophy – I’ve always felt defense is imperative. But now I just feel that defense is where the revival needs to start.
By all accounts, Jim Schwartz appears to be the current front-runner for the Lions head coaching job. He seems to be on board with Mayhew and Lewand’s plan going forward and with his background in scouting, would be a logical choice and an asset to the organization. However, his defensive scheme is not much different than Marinelli’s. It’s a 4-3 defense that counts on a stout, agile defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback and shut down the run. The linebackers are used in space and play a fair amount of zone. They need to tackle well and be fast enough and skilled enough to play coverage. They also rarely blitz. Leslie Frazier, who is also a candidate, uses a similar scheme in Minnesota. Although I’m not overly excited about continuing with the same scheme that has failed so miserably over the past two seasons, in the end, it’s about players. Getting the right guys to fill the right holes is the key. The most important part of this off-season is evaluating the little talent we do have and how it translates to the new scheme. If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it. Cut the player and make room for a rookie or free agent that fits the scheme.
Secretly, or maybe not so secretly, I’ve hoped that the Lions would bring in a coach or coordinator that would install the 3-4 defense. For two reasons… one, it’s such a versatile defense if you have the right group of players and two, most of the Lions players wouldn’t fit the scheme. This would force them to bring in or draft new talent and force a defensive-oriented draft. By all indications, the guys they are looking at for head coach will probably not install this type of defense (they could still interview Rex Ryan). That’s okay, though. It still all hinges on the talent evaluation process and bringing in talented players to fit the scheme.
So what I’m trying to say in this post is that I think if the Lions look around the league and say, “hey, what is the best formula to turn around a franchise”, they need to look at the final eight teams in the playoffs and be thinking… yep, it’s all about the defense. Outside of quarterback at the top (yes, I still think it’s the best move), the rest of this draft needs to be spent thinking about how to improve the last ranked defense. The beautiful thing here is that they are so awful at every position… they are all need picks! All they need to do is take the best defensive player on the board with every pick. It’s that simple. It just comes down to thorough scouting and staying true to your draft board. Don’t get cute with a surprise third round running back (yes, that’s you Calhoun). Just stay with the plan to turn around the defense. What about the offensive line? Well… you might all think I’m crazy, but if you can’t pick up a stop-gap free agent guard or tackle… wait until 2010. That’s right. The offense was mediocre, but the defense was absolutely atrocious. Maybe next year, both the offense and defense can both get to mediocre. That would be progress in my book. Then in 2010, you start drafting with more precision on both sides of the ball. Don’t get me wrong, there are offensive line needs… but the defense is what I believe needs to be fixed first.
I’m sure you all have strong opinions as to why I’m wrong here, so let’s hear what you have to say.
Oh, and by the way… Schwartz might be the best guy for the job because of this: He’s a defensive coach but indicated that he would lean towards selecting a quarterback with the first overall pick by giving this gem of a quote: "Quarterback is the trump card of all positions in the NFL. If you've got a great quarterback, you can cover up a lot of other areas on your team. If you don't have a great quarterback, you've got to be really good in a lot of other areas." Now that’s the stuff right there! My philosophy in a nutshell.