In the first part of this series on the Lions linebackers, we talked about the players that the Lions have on their roster, or have a very good chance of signing back to the squad. In that article I concluded that if the Lions do not sign a free agent linebacker, the projected starting lineup would probably be Levy in the middle with Carpenter and Palmer on the outside, based on statements by Martin Mayhew. We also looked at the backups being chosen from Zack Follett, Isaiah Ekejuiba, Doug Hogue and Caleb Campbell.
While this is where we are at now, is this where we want to be? I think the answer to that is an emphatic NO! The Lions have some pieces at the linebacker position that could be long term solutions, but they are far from having the final pieces in place. To understand what the Lions want, we have to take a look at the defensive scheme of Jim Schwartz and the type of linebackers the Lions are looking for.
Scoping the System
The most important thing to know about the type of defense that Jim Schwartz plays, is that he likes flexible players that can adjust to the situation on the field without making substitutions. The Schwartz defensive philosophy demands that linebackers are able to play both the strong and weak side. The Lions emphasize this fact by calling the outside linebackers left and right rather than strong and weak. Both outside linebackers are expected to understand the roles on both the strong and weak side and adjust what they do according to how the offense lines up. You will not see linebackers switching sides to adjust based on where the tight end moves.
One of the things you can count on in the Schwartz defense is that linebackers are expected to defend passes. No team in the NFL, that plays the 4-3 defense, have more snaps taken by linebackers than Detroit. This was also true in Tennessee when Jim Schwartz was defensive coordinator there. Schwartz really does not like to switch out of the base defense to bring in nickel and dime packages on passing downs.
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. By switching to a nickel or dime package you are sacrificing the ability to defend the run based on the assumption that the opposing team is going to pass. But you are also giving the other team more options by weakening your rushing defense and making the draw play, or screen passes, more feasible. If you keep the base defense in play, you retain the ability to defend whatever the opposition might do. You need a base defense that can defend both the pass and the run to do that, so you need linebackers that can defend the pass.
The burden of defending both the pass and the run falls primarily on the linebackers and safeties in the Schwartz defense. The cornerbacks are expected to be able to read the run and make plays, but their primary responsibility is to cover the wideouts. In the ideal situation, the Lions want the safeties to be able to cover additional receivers without shifting into a nickel or dime package. The linebackers are responsible for short zones. They will pick up the tight ends and running backs that go out into passing routes.
This is not saying that the Lions will not play any nickel or dime packages. If the opponent comes out with four wide receivers, it is likely the Lions will respond with additional defensive backs in the secondary as well. It is not smart to expect a linebacker to cover a wide receiver unless they are amazing at pass coverage.
The defensive package the Lions will put on the field really depends on how many safeties they wish to drop into deep coverage after accounting for the four wide receivers. They will use a nickel package if they are satisfied with only one deep safety, and a dime package if they want to play prevent defense with two deep safeties, The more confident the coaches are in the ability of their cornerbacks to cover the receivers, the more linebackers they will keep in the game to help shut down plays that are underneath the coverage.
The Lions do not blitz linebackers very often, but that does not mean they wouldn't under the right circumstances. Both Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham prefer that pressure on the passer is accomplished by defensive line. They subscribe to the idea that blitzes become less effective if you do them all the time. Schwartz and Gunny both like to use blitzes as a way to keep the opponent off balance and create opportunities for a big play.
By blitzing sparingly, but effectively, the Lions force to opposition to delay in releasing tight ends and running backs into passing routes. That little bit of extra time reduces how long the linebackers are forced to cover these players and gives the defensive line some time to get to the quarterback before some of their check-downs are available.
Given the Lions defensive philosophy, we need to understand that linebackers are expected to be good in pass coverage. The more ground they can cover the better the Lions coaches will like them. But the coaches do not want to make a big sacrifice in rushing defense to accomplish this goal. The linebackers and safeties in the Lions defense are expected to be a jack-of-all-trades more than anybody else on the field.
Profile of a Linebacker
The requirements of the defensive system tell the Lions what type of player is needed to play at a linebacker position. The prototype Lions linebacker must fast enough to cover running backs and tight ends in coverage. The Lions seem to want guys that can run the 40 yard dash in the 4.7 second range or better. But it is just as important that they are agile defenders that can quickly adjust to cuts in a pass pattern.
Because the linebackers are also expected to defend against the run, they are must be big enough to take on a running back as well. The Lions favor players that are aggressive in attacking the run and will fill gaps in the defense. Jim Schwartz especially likes guys that will deliver a blow when they reach the ball carrier. Good tackling skills are very important.
The requirement for speed and agility will limit how big the linebackers will be. The Lions have been targeting guys that are over 6 feet tall and heavier than 230 lbs as a rule of thumb. This will not make them beastly against the run, but they will be capable of taking on running backs.
Lions linebackers are not required to have great ability to rush the quarterback. The Lions place more importance on pass coverage, but that does not mean the coaches would not love for the linebackers to have the ability to blitz effectively when asked. Count this one as a nice bonus if the linebacker has the ability.
The Lions have selected three linebackers in the NFL draft since Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have taken over. If we look at these three picks we can see how they meet the critera that is in the linebacker profile that we have.
Deandre Levy represents the highest round draft pick that the Lions have spent for a linebacker. He was selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft with pick #76 overall. Levy was measured at 6'2" tall and 236 lbs during the 2010 NFL combine. He ran a 4.56 second 40 yard dash. All of these numbers fit the Lions profile.
In order to look at the skills of Levy, we should refer to the scouting reports about him...
POSITIVES: Strong, athletic linebacker who started to pull the pieces together last season. Physical, aggressive, and attacks ball carriers. Collapses from the outside to defend the run, strong at the point, and defeats blocks to get to the action. Chases the play hard, and displays a good burst of closing speed. Plays with balance, rarely off his feet, and nicely redirects to ball carriers. Improved his reads, instincts, and ability in coverage last season.
NEGATIVES: Inefficient, at times a bit too quick to come up the field on play-action passes, and does not always take proper angles to the action. For the most part, marginal skills in coverage for a smallish linebacker.
Positives: Very physical at the line, takes on fullbacks in the hole or tight ends on the edge to allow other players to make the tackle. … Uses above-average arm length to effectively wrap up and form tackle in the open field. … Has better straight-line speed and quickness than most college strong-side linebackers. … Handles coverage responsibilities against tight ends and running backs in the flat. … Smart, assignment-sure defensive leader.
Negatives: A bit stiff in the hips, works best in a straight line. … Backpedal is tall and choppy. … Not explosive closing on the ball. … Gets caught up in traffic too much. … Does not use his hands or speed to beat linemen when blitzing, although he can dispose of running backs. … Lines up in a stack, but must learn how to play as a nine-technique.
These reports tell us that the skills Levy possesses closely mirror what the Lions look for in our profile. There is room for improvement, but there always will be for any draft pick.
Levy has cemented himself in a starting role for the Lions. Even if Levy is moved outside because of a new player acquisition, he will still start at one of the linebacker spots. Currently, Levy represents the only "sure thing" among the Lions linebacker corps.
The Lions selected Zack Follett in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft with the 235th overall pick. He was 6'2" tall and 238 lbs at his Pro Day in 2010, where he ran the 40 yard dash in 4.69 second. He meets the Lions profile for a linebacker based on his size.
Here are some scouting reports for Zack Follett...
POSITIVES: Instinctive linebacker who plays with good instincts. Breaks down well, quick in his head, and immediately locates the ball. Effective in run defense, fires up the field, and wraps up tackling. Tough, and works hard to get involved in the action.
NEGATIVES: Displays marginal skill in pursuit and lacks speed to the sidelines. Struggles in coverage, displaying a poor backpedal and average ball skills.
Positives: Broad frame with the room for an additional 10-15 pounds of muscle mass. … Improved play recognition as he gained experience. … Plays with reckless abandon on every snap. … Forcefully takes on blocks with an impressive pop that can gain him the separation he needs to make big plays behind the line of scrimmage. … Downhill defender who can explode into the ballcarrier and has forced eight fumbles over his career, despite only emerging as a full-time starter in 2007. … Looks to intimidate his opponent. … Reads the quarterback's eyes and will break on the ball.
Negatives: Relies on his aggression and physicality to make the play. … Inconsistent in his reads. … Will take false steps and can be beaten over the top by play-action. … At his best coming off the edge as a pass rusher, but showed only marginal technique when facing athletic pass blockers who could absorb his initial charge as a pass rusher. … Only flashes the lateral quickness to evade blockers. … Tackled with his head down too often in 2007, leading to some missed tackles and, more important, putting his spinal cord at risk. Follett missed nearly three games in 2007 due to a neck stinger.
We can see that Zack has many of the attributes that the coaches prize in our profile. He needs to improve his pass coverage and ability to read the play as we have also seen from his play for the Lions.
I feel that our impressions about Zack have been thrown off a bit by how events have unfolded. His position in the draft seems to indicate that Zack was an insurance policy for Deandre Levy. At the time he was selected, the Lions needed linebackers to play in the middle. His aggressiveness on the ball carrier and willingness to bring the big hit fit well with playing middle linebacker for the Lions. In fact, he is so aggressive in his hits that he earned the nickname "Pain Train" from the Lions fans and made him a favorite.
Zack was pressed into service as an outside linebacker with the Lions because they simply didn't have anybody better to fill the role after Jordan Dizon went down to an injury. During his time in the starting lineup Zack showed his scouting reports were fairly accurate. He was showing steady improvement to his game before his injury.
Because of Zack's neck injury it is difficult to tell what his future will be with the Lions. The coaches would be wise to be cautious with Follett and bring him along slowly. Zack could even spend 2011 on injured reserve. He could also start the season on the physically unable to perform(PUP) list, which would put him out of the first six games of the regular season.
Even if Zack starts the season on the 53-man roster he will probably be a backup with special teams duties. His future with the Lions seems to be as a depth player in the long term but you can't ever count out guys like Zack. Their drive and work ethic sometimes allows them to succeed far past what their talent might dictate.
Doug Hogue was selected in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft with pick #157 overall pick. He was measured at 6'2" and 235 lbs at the 2011 NFL Combine, where he was timed at 4.62 seconds in the 40 yard dash. Once again, Hogue fits right into the physical profile that the Lions have used to select linebackers in the draft.
Positives: Athletic linebacker who displays tremendous skill in space. Shows good awareness and instincts to quickly locate the ball. Gets depth on pass drops, displays outstanding skill in coverage, and constantly around the ball. Very aggressive and productive in his all-around game. Fluid pedaling in reverse and smooth opening his hips in transition. Stays with tight ends or running backs down the field, plays with explosiveness, and moves quickly in every direction. Immediately alters his angle of attack and loses no momentum. Breaks down well and uses his hands to protect himself.
Negatives: Lacks bulk and easily controlled at the point of attack. Gives effort defending the run but not stout at the point.
Strengths: Works best in space and to the sideline, scraping to chase down backs before they get the corner. Has a strong safety build and is smooth in coverage of running backs and tight ends from the strong-side position. Gets his hands on a lot of passes by staying home. Good recovery speed when beat on play-action or misdirection. Used regularly on run and pass blitzes, can catch running backs from behind from the backside or wiggle through creases to track down quarterbacks in the pocket. Defeats cut blocks on the run.
Weaknesses: Lacks strength at the point of attack, losing leverage battles against fullbacks and tight ends and winds up on the ground too often. High-cut defender doesn't always break down easily in space. Ballcarriers can stiff-arm him easily. Does not beat blocks to reach the quarterback when blitzing. Has fair hands but dropped potential interceptions. Had arthroscopic surgery on right MCL/meniscus after an injury in the 2010 spring game.
Doug Hogue also checks a lot of the boxes on the Lions profile for linebackers. In a way, Hogue is the yin to Zack Follet's yang, since he is stronger in pass coverage than in defending the run. His speed and agility allow him to cover large areas of the field. Doug also needs to improve his read and react skills.
From the Coaches Mouth
Our data concerning the profile that the Lions use when selecting a linebacker was further verified by Lions Linebacker coach, Matt Burke in this statement about Doug Hogue...
"The biggest thing about Doug is that he fits our profile: size, weight, speed and all that stuff. He’s a really athletic kid and he’s only played linebacker for two years, he was a running back when he went to Syracuse, so we felt that transition… he’s still a little bit raw, but that profile is exactly what we look for at that position and we feel that he can develop into a player for us. He’s over 6-2, he’s 235 and he can move. He plays in space a lot, he’s walked in the slot, he covers ground, he can cover running backs and does all the sort of things that we look for in that position." Matt Burke – Detroit Lions Linebacker Coach
Jim Schwartz had this to say about selecting Hogue...
"No, not really. We were still sitting on the board as we looked. We had a group of about two or three guys that we talked about and he was the guy that made the most sense for us. He matched the profile that we were looking for; had the skill set that we were looking for; had some plays on tape that we were looking for. We’d done a lot of work with this player and I think the opportunity matched up with his availability." Jim Schwartz – Detroit Lions Head Coach
Between the characteristics of the draft picks and the statements by Schwartz and Burke, I think we have enough verification to be confident that our assumptions about the profile for linebackers is accurate. We are not likely to find many linebackers that fit the profile exactly, but we can be reasonably sure that players that hit more of the check-marks will be favorites for the Lions to acquire.
We Can Learn From Our Mistakes Too
When we look at the three draft picks the Lions have spent on linebackers, we gain insight into the type of player that the Lions want. The next step is to apply what we know against the linebackers that have been cut in order to see where they fit into the profile.
Jordan Dizon is 6'0" and 232 lbs so he is at the lower margin of the Lions physical profile for a linebacker. This probably contributed to the decision by the Lions to give up on Dizon and release him. His small size and injury history do not breed confidence that he will every be healthy in the NFL. If Dizon were able to stay healthy he would have otherwise fit the profile for a linebacker with the Lions.
Larry Foote is 6'1" and 238 lbs, but his 4.83 second time in the 40 yard dash is a bit slow for the Lions profile. Foote's inability to defend the pass forced the Lions to substitute for him in passing situations. That is likely the largest reason that Foote was not offered a new contract with Detroit. He was a one year stopgap that just didn't fit the Lions profile for their system. This move is a clear indication that the Lions will insist on linebackers that can defend the pass.
Julian Peterson is 6'3" and 245 lbs. He ran the 40 yard dash in 4.57 seconds at some point, but he was not playing near that speed for the Lions. Peterson had become a player that was just collecting a paycheck. His repeated mistakes were often critical in turning close games into losses for the Lions. He fit the Lions profile well, but did not play to his potential.
Ernie Sims is a bit small for the Lions profile at 5'11" and 231 lbs though his 4.50 time in the 40 yard dash indicates excellent speed. The problem is that Ernie did not use his speed and aggression effectively. He consistently overran plays and shot into the wrong gap. He took himself out of plays as often as the opposition did. Between his small size and questionable ability to make proper reads the Lions decided to trade him away for Tony Schefller.
When looking at the players that the Lions have rejected as linebackers we can see that Larry Foote is the only player that was probably rejected based solely on being a square peg in a round hole. Dizon, Peterson, and Sims could have been successful in Detroit but failed because of various problems that limited their ability to make an impact on the field.
Are we there yet?
When we apply our profile to the players that are currently on the roster we can see where the Lions currently are sitting in their quest to create a linebacker corps that will help them win games. There are a couple of notable exceptions to the profile that we have arrived upon that were on the roster for 2010.
Isaiah Ekejiuba fits the size criteria at 6'4" and 240 lbs. If anything he may be a bit tall. His problems are more about his speed. Isaiah clocks a 4.82 in the 40 yard dash and it shows in his pass coverage skills. While Isaiah makes excellent contributions on special teams, he will be deep on the depth chart at middle linebacker. Other linebackers are very capable on special teams, so at some point the Lions will decide that Isaiah no longer fits on the roster. Being a Pro Bowl alternate is nice for the fans, but playing special teams alone is not enough to keep a roster spot.
I also mentioned in part one that Landon Johnson is likely to be replaced with a free agent as well. So we are back to where we started having Levy in the middle with Carpenter and Palmer on the outside as starters. Zack Follett will be in the mix if he is physically capable of playing. Doug Hogue will get a chance to develop on the roster because the Lions spent a draft pick on him. Caleb Campbell will fight for a roster spot but may end up back on the practice squad. Isaiah Ekejuiba is likely to be the odd man out if Follett can play special teams and the Lions sign a free agent linebacker.
In the third and final installment of this series we will put all of this information together to discuss which players the Lions should target in free agency to fit their system and profile.