Disclaimer: Hopefully, it's not too early in the year for a little X's and O's. I just want to put it out there before anyone reads this article that I've never been a coach, don't profess to be a coach and certainly don't boast that I have a complete understanding of NFL schemes. That said, I watch and breakdown a lot of game footage and have amassed a nice film compilation over the years (yes... quite pathetic). As I was writing this, I realized this was going to be more than a tad lengthy if I wanted to cover all my points, so reader beware!. As you will find, this one is a bit of a marathon, so bear with me as I attempt to analyze a troublesome area of the Lion's defense.
So as you might have guessed from the title, my primary concern for the 2009 Lions (at least defensively) is the shape of the secondary. A close second for me would be the defensive line, and to be fair, I feel that the line's pressure (or lack thereof) directly affects the secondary. The longer a quarterback has to make decisions, the better chance a receiver has to find a breach in coverage. So in essence, no pass rush equals more headaches in coverage. Maybe it's a wash in terms of which is needed more, a good line or good coverage, but in my opinion, one definitely affects the other.
So the big question is: what is Schwartz going to do with the suspect talent he has back there? That was Marinelli's thing you know... getting the most out of "less skilled" players by simply applying a new scheme that "supposedly" works to the player's advantage. How did that work out? Alright, I'll ease up on the sarcasm against Marinelli, but it's probably deserved. And I guess it's quite fair to say that Schwartz is in the same boat with the current secondary and that it's a subjective point of view in regards to the talent level. Through my eyes, there is not really much talent or depth there right now (aside from Delmas and maybe Buchanon) and Schwartz's mentality is basically the same... install a new defense and try to get the best out of the talent that is there. So, can he succeed where Marinelli failed? To take a pre-season stab at answering that question, you've got to get down to the X's and O's of each man's defensive philosophy.
Tampa 2 under Marinelli
Let's first take a little trip down memory lane with a hindsight view of Marinelli's '08 defense and where it failed. Any talk of Marinelli's schemes forces us to rehash the "hated and dated" Tampa 2 system. The fundamentals of this scheme are based on speed, timing and placement. The flaw was that Marinelli thought that if he had a fast player, he could simply teach the timing and placement of the scheme through repetition (or by "pounding the rock"... sorry, had to say it). Where he also flat-out failed was that he was taking away many players' strengths simply to adapt to the scheme - versus adapting a scheme to work to a player's strengths. Maybe that was Millen's failure in not getting good skill-to-scheme transferable players. It's all semantics at this point, nonetheless. Last year, the starting line-up consisted of (for the most part) Leigh Bodden, Travis Fisher and Brian Kelly at corner and Daniel Bullocks, Dwight Smith and Kalvin Pearson at safety. There were others that got playing time, but we'll focus on these for the sake of simplicity. How Marinelli used these players is an interesting study into why the system failed so badly.
The base formation of the Tampa 2 secondary is like most other 4-3 alignments. Two corners out wide on the flanker and split end receiver positions and two safeties playing the traditional strong and free roles of most base 4-3 defenses. The corners, who play in a zone setting nearly all of the time, line up anywhere from 5-10 yds (sometimes farther) from the receiver. Their job is to simply cover an area of the field around 10-20 yds from the line of scrimmage, thus the name... zone. The safety's job is to read and react to what the offense is giving them in order to be the support over the top of the corners on passing downs or to break down to the ball in the event of a running play. The philosophy of the Tampa 2 from the secondary's perspective is to deter and not give up big plays. Obviously, this is a very basic overview of the Tampa 2 and is really not much different from many zone-heavy schemes based on the traditional 4-3 alignment. But in all fairness, Marinelli didn't break from this core philosophy very often. The core philosophy of the Tampa 2 calls for pressure using mainly the front four to allow for all seven other defenders to be able to drop back and cover specific zones. Only under intense scrutiny did he start to blitz more, even when his front four failed repeatedly to get pressure on the quarterback. And the problem was - very obviously - that the pressure wasn't getting to the quarterback and the defense was constantly caught out of position because the players either didn't trust the scheme enough to have proper placement or they didn't have the talent to stay with the receivers. Speed is not the same as cover ability. Either way, Marinelli simply failed to adjust in-game to take pressure off the secondary.
So how did the '08 players fit in relation to their assignments? Good question. Bodden should have been the most talented corner on the field last year. Instead, he was a non-factor. Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith each played in the Tampa 2 system for nearly ten years and Fisher had been in it the year before. Pearson had experience in the system in Tampa. Bullocks was coming off injury, but showed some promise in his rookie year in the system. So why did this defense fail so miserably? A simplified answer could be that either the scheme simply did not suit the player or the player didn't have the skills needed anymore.
Of these players, Bodden was the most disappointing. I personally believe that the failure was in not correctly using Bodden, not that he didn't have talent. Bodden's breakout season in '07 came within the confines of Crennel's 3-4 scheme, which relies heavily on man coverage and the corner not always having help over the top. Bodden was to stay with the receiver and he proved to be a good coverage player with playmaker ability. So Detroit takes him and forces him to be confined to a zoned area of the field instead of allowing him to stay with the receiver. Granted, the 3-4 plays a certain amount of zone, but this was not Bodden's strong suit. On tape, I could see his natural tendency to want to stay with the receiver and that hesitancy to drop him and stay in his zone. It just wasn't natural for him or a good fit. I still believe that Bodden should have been retained for ‘09. Although his contract was more than Detroit should have paid, I would feel better if he was opposite Buchanon in Schwartz new scheme versus Anthony Henry.
- As for Smith and Kelly, these were two players with the right background but brought in two or three years too late. These would have been quality depth players but neither was capable of being a starter any longer.
- Pearson also had a Tampa background and probably was the only slightly pleasant surprise last year. However, because of injuries, Pearson played much more than he was capable of and was simply overmatched from an ability standpoint.
- Bullocks, for the most part, was a frustration to watch. A player with good size and speed, he seemed hesitant all too often. Maybe it was the lingering injury, but it seemed to hamper his ability to make the right run/pass reads and then close in for the hit. I think we all liked the flashes that he showed as a rookie, but still, that insecurity within the scheme forced it to fail. Bullocks had to trust his reads in the Tampa 2. The whole scheme was designed around that philosophy and he was hesitant and lacked decision-making ability all too often.
- Travis Fisher was hard to peg. He seemed to have enough speed and could hit, but too frequently missed the tackle or was caught out of position. In the end, he didn't seem to fit what the Lions were trying to do at the corner position.
Okay, so Marinelli is fairly easy to breakdown. The games are all there to see. We armchair quarterbacks can easily point out the things that went wrong. The tougher exercise is to look forward to the '09 season and try to decipher Schwartz's style and game plan and see how that might translate to our current roster. I'll try to be objective and not take the "Schwartz is right, Marinelli is wrong" approach to everything.
4-3 under Schwartz
The first thing to point out is that Schwartz doesn't have a fancy name for his defense. All we really know is that it's going to primarily be a base 4-3 defense and will most likely be a good mix of what both Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham like to do. From all the comments I could gather, I think the defense will be similar to what Schwartz ran in Tennessee with Cunningham's aggressiveness and blitzing (why else would they bring in a guy like Peterson). Best of both worlds? Maybe. But it's too early to get excited when you look at the personnel in the secondary. I'm not so optimistic that scheme can cover lack of talent. So let's break down what Schwartz likes to do in his schemes.
Like I previously stated, Schwartz's schemes don't have any fancy monikers like the Tampa 2 or the West Coast offense. He believes in blended schemes that seamlessly weave together to do whatever is needed at the moment - in the heat of battle. This should make him an asset in games versus a liability like Marinelli. It should also make it more difficult to plan against. Defensively, he'll run a base 4-3 defense, but there are some noticeable distinctions that I've picked up on. First, his defensive line focus is the opposite as the Tampa 2. The ends will play out wide in order to force the runner to the inside, instead of forcing the runner to bounce out. That's why Schwartz wants a bigger, stronger team up front. Seems like a good idea as the Titans gave up so few rushing yards last year (92.4 YPG - ranked 5th in the league). Secondly, Schwartz does not differentiate between the traditional free and strong safety positions and calls them more of a "right and left" safety. In his scheme, he will be looking for both safeties to be able to cover well and also have the speed to blast up to the line for a rushing assault. Schwartz is looking for big hitters as well. Thirdly, we should see a little more man coverage from the corners. Yes, we'll still see zone from time to time, but the ratio will be much more even or slightly favoring man coverage. I get this indication from the tape that I have on the Titans from games over the last few seasons. But again, it's about translation to player - i.e. just because the Lions will be running more man coverage, doesn't always mean we will be able to run that man-to-man effectively. Lastly, is Schwartz's philosophy on quarterback pressure. Yes, he wants to get there with lineman, but he will not be afraid to rush a linebacker and do it often. That's why he went out and traded for Peterson. He wants to get to the quarterback and doesn't care how. Schwartz did get a bit of a name as being too conservative in Tennessee, but I think Cunningham's aggressiveness will compensate. So that's Schwartz's scheme in a nutshell. Yeah, I left out some details, but you get the idea. So how does the current secondary translate?
Well, I wish there was a lot more talent here, but there just isn't. And there isn't likely to be anyone added via free agency of significant value either. So we'll concentrate on Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry, Eric King and Keith Smith to keep it simple.
- First, Buchanon is the only current lock on either of the starting positions. He's still a good player with above average ability and should have plenty of gas left in the tank. The problem is that he's been in Tampa's system for the past three years. So how will he translate? From my perspective... it's unknown. You almost have to look back to his years in Oakland, but he's a different player now - in good ways and bad. He's smarter, but maybe not quite as fast. Time will tell on him.
- As for Anthony Henry, I'm not even sure he'll be listed as a corner by the time pre-season is here. He's definitely slowed down quite a bit... the tape doesn't lie. But he's a ball hawker and a savvy veteran who should help out somewhere. I think if he was faster he'd fit Schwartz's scheme perfectly. He's played lots of man coverage in both Dallas and Cleveland and has been known to stick to a receiver well.
- Eric King is a bit of an enigma for me. There's little to no tape on him to watch. I'm going on what I've read about him to this point. It sounds like he's a lock to be the nickel back and if Henry is moved to safety, King could find himself in his first starting role. That's a little scary to me. I think he'll be better than I'm giving him credit for, but he's another big unknown. At least Schwartz likes him.
- Lastly, Keith Smith is perpetual potential unrealized. Mismanaged and misused under Marinelli, he finds himself looked at as depth versus bona-fide starting material. He's fast, athletic and has a real nose for the ball. I think he's a lot like Leigh Bodden in the sense that his natural instincts are to stay with the receiver and could benefit from the new changes. He could make the roster as anything from starter to number four corner.
Thank God for Mayhew upsetting all of us Lions fans and taking Delmas instead of Rey Maualuga with the 33rd pick this year. Without Delmas, the safety position would be a total disaster. It's anyone's guess who will be where come September - aside from Delmas. But I think we all need to remember that while Delmas is a virtual lock for one of the starting positions, he's still a rookie and won't be a Polamalu out of the gates. He will make mistakes and he will need to adjust to the game.
- That said, I absolutely LOVE the potential that Delmas has shown so far. I think he's going to be a real star on this defense for the next decade or more. He fits everything to a "T" that the defensive coaches want to see. He's fast, smart and hits like a Mack truck. He's shown the ability to both cover and blast to the line for a presence against the run. This is exactly what Schwartz wanted in a safety. Injury is a concern, but isn't it always with safeties? Barring some significant setback, he should be the highlight of the secondary and the rookie with the most impact Detroit has seen in a long time.
- Kalvin Pearson is currently taking reps with the first team defense as the other safety opposite Delmas. This worries me as I'm sure it worries you. Pearson played better than I expected last year, but that was in a system that he understood well. I take solace in the fact that Schwartz sees something in him, but I'm not sure he'll ever be better than solid depth.
- It was very disheartening to learn that Bullocks was not taking part in most OTAs earlier this year and appears to not yet be fully healed from his '07 injury. It was even more discouraging to find that he's currently taking reps with the third team defense. Is he damaged goods or is there really merit behind Schwartz's "no depth chart" mantra? Who knows. All I can say is that we can't count on Bullocks as the long-term option at safety that we all thought he was. This scheme probably fits him much better, but if he's still hurt or mentally fried, it's time to draft a replacement next year. Damn you Millen and your second round picks!
- As for the rest of these guys, Marquand Manuel and Stu Schweigert should be good depth/special team guys and better than average insurance in the case of injury. Schweigert is intriguing to me as he still may have a smidgen of the unrealized potential that they couldn't find in Oakland. He's got to get healthy for training camp first. The two big wildcards are Otis Wiley and Anthony Henry. If they move Henry to Safety, case closed. He'll be the starter as he's far and away more talented than the rest of these guys. Wiley will be a fan favorite and could end up anywhere from the waiver wire to a functional piece of the secondary.
Okay... so who's still with me? I better write up a conclusion to this novel, before I lose everyone. So I'll end this thing by asking a question... will this secondary prove to be any better than last year's version? In my humble opinion, I'm not sure. Wishy-washy... yeah, I know. The schemes are different, but is different better? Not sure. There a few key pieces that need to fall into place for this to be a success.
First, Delmas needs to be the player we all think he's going to be. That will give us a strong presence over the middle against both the run and pass and force offenses to avoid that part of the field. That would be a big change from last year as teams constantly took advantage of that seam. Secondly, Buchanon has to translate to a solid man-to-man player. I think he will, but until I see it, there will be doubt. Last year, I simply assumed that Bodden would make the transition from tight coverage to zone and I was dead wrong. Next, there has to be someone to step up and take the other starting corner position and play well. Whether this is King, Henry or Smith or even if they are forced to sign a McAlister or Surtain off the street, someone needs to be able to hold the fort down against the opponent's number two. Lastly, if they are going to move Henry to Safety, do it the first day of camp. Get him acclimated and add stability to that position. This way, the corner battle can heat up and Schwartz will know if he needs to scour the waiver wire or the free agent scrapheap to bring in a temporary starter to get through the year.
If all of these huge "ifs" are answered positively, there is no doubt this group will be better. But until I see that with my own eyes, it's tough to think that we will be a lot better in the secondary this year. So what do you all think? Are we a better secondary this year?