I have mentioned parts of this in a couple of threads on POD over the last year, and for the most part have not gotten much feedback, but as I watched the game yesterday these thoughts were on my mind for a large portion of the game. The question being, "is the strategy we have used to build this defense a good one with the way the NFL game is currently played and officiated?" I will give a quick answer of, "I'm not sure, but leaning toward no," before going into the details.
What I saw yesterday on defense left me a bit baffled. The defensive line which is supposed to be a dominant unit played very well in the 1st quarter, generating pressure and winning man-to-man match-ups. By the second half it was a completely different story, they did not get to Ponder and the Viking run blocking completely manhandled them. Everyone is giving Adrian Peterson most of the credit for his performance yesterday, and he played like an all-pro, don't get me wrong, but the run blocking is why the Vikings won yesterday.
The method for building this defense is a traditional method for football; build from closest to the ball outward. Building this way would mean that positional importance would be something like this DT > DE / MLB > OLB/S > CB. With the Lions this seems to be mostly true, they have put more of their money and draft picks into those positions with higher value according to this trend. This has also been mentioned before by the Lions staff when talking about building the team.
The Lions then generally use their personnel in this way: The defensive line is about causing havoc, with the DEs forcing the play to the inside while they also try to generate some pressure off the edge. The DTs are supposed to collapse the pocket and get into the backfield on both run and pass plays. The LBs are there to clean up the damage caused by the line, they are to fill the left over gaps against the run and cover underneath routes by TEs and to a lesser extent WRs (they do not cover deeper zones like in the Tampa 2). The safeties play deep coverage and provide support on running plays. The CBs play a mix of both zone and man coverages. In theory the coverage needs to hold up long enough for the D-line to get to the QB, they must prevent the quick routes that nullify the pass rush. Blitzing in general is rare and the line is expected to generate the pressure.
When comparing some of the best defenses around the NFL (not just this season, but over the last few years) SF, Pitt, Bal, and Chi quickly come to mind. What are some of the common trends of these teams? The first thing that strikes me is the heart of all these defenses is the LBs. While I like Tulloch he will not have the legacy of LBs such as Ray Lewis, Urlacher, Briggs, Harrison, Woodley, Willis, or Bowman. Levy and Durant have been playing better this season (which is why I believe our run defense is improved), but our LB core is nowhere near the caliber of these teams. The next trend I see (with perhaps the exception of Chicago) is good play from the safeties. Reed, Polamalu, and Goldson are excellent players who make their teams much better when they are on the field. While the Lions seem better with Delmas in the game I don't think he is on the level with these players, and the rest of our safeties are average at best (Spievey, Coleman, Silva, Florence, Carey). The last positive thing I notice about these defenses is that they generate a pass rush from the "prototypical" pass rushing positions (DE in a 4-3, and OLB in a 3-4). What I do not see is much of a pass rush from the interior defensive line, instead they tend to be space eaters who stop runs up the middle.
A couple of other defenses that have been good GB 2010-2011, NYJ 2010-2012, and SEA 2012 have been good primarily due to having a good secondary. They have CBs and S who can cover better than most and create turnovers. These teams have also had a good pass rush that mostly stemmed from those prototypical pass rushing positions OLB or DE.
What I see going wrong with the Lions current system is that the coverage is not good enough for long enough and it allows the opposing QBs to get the ball out before the pass rush can get there. Teams that use the zone blitz a lot can counter this by getting free shots by fooling the pass protection and overloading one side of the field, but the Lions do not blitz much and are not particularly good at it when they do, so this is not a good option for them. The other answer is to get better in coverage, particularly press-man, but that requires devoting more team resources to the secondary, which is low on the positional importance to them because it is farther from the ball. The other problem I see is that those highly sought after DTs are often double-teamed and this mostly nullifies them. If you have a very good edge rusher it is hard to put a double team on them, but if your strength is the interior of the line then it is easier to double team and therefore neutralize the pass rush. I also believe that holding is called much more when trying to contain edge rushers than against interior linemen. These two things taken in tandem is why I believe our pass rush disappears quite a lot.
What this means is that in an ideal world I think the Lions should attempt to devote more of their resources to DE, LB and S while using less for DT. The nice thing is S and 4-3 LB tend to be lower pay positions compared to DE, 3-4 OLB, and CB. I am aware that this is not an ideal world and talent at those positions may not be available to them, but I do think there should be a bit of a change in philosophy when it comes to building a defense, they may be able to get more bang for the buck. It will be interesting to see how the next contracts work out for Suh and Fairley (I feel they have underperformed for high first round picks) as this could be an indicator that the front office is changing its resource allocation.
Well, what do you think, is the way they are going the best way to build or do you think there are better philosophies they should employ? I'm hoping for more than they need to upgrade such and such position, and instead offer up ideas as to where to cut as well since they are near the cap limit. You usually can't just add talent without taking resources from another unit.