I attended a college that didn't have a football team, so I missed out on the tailgating experience. As a result, this Sunday's game will officially mark the earliest I have ever woken up for football. I came into this week with two goals:
- Take a look at the Detroit Lions' defensive fronts under Teryl Austin.
- Find a bar in Chicago that will open at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday.
As of writing this column, I am 1-for-2. To understand some of the Lions' current defensive success, we have to talk about some of their past failures. Let's take a brief and painful walk down memory lane.
For the bulk of Jim Schwartz's tenure as the Lions' head coach, the defensive philosophy remained static: Rush four and drop seven into coverage, ad nauseam. It's not hard to understand the reasoning behind the approach, but when you repeatedly do the same things in the NFL, other teams tend to figure it out. Schwartz, however, was not a man who appreciated his football principles being questioned. Reasoning be damned, the defensive fronts stayed the same, even as the Lions' sack rates plummeted. It was an encapsulation of Schwartz as a coach: self-confidence became obstinacy, which became delusional belligerence.
To observe the 2014 Lions defense is to see the inverse of those principles. The talent on the Lions defense is virtually the same as last season, yet the results are markedly different, and much of that speaks to Austin's approach as defensive coordinator. The talent on the defensive line doesn't preclude Austin from mixing up his fronts; it allows him to be as creative as he wants in doing it.
On Sunday, the Lions play the Atlanta Falcons. As Jeremy Reisman stated earlier, the Falcons' offensive line is a bit of a mess right now. Strangely, the Falcons rank in the top half of the league in adjusted sack rate, which seems high for a team that has lost multiple starters and used a tight end as an emergency offensive tackle at one point. I'm not buying that. If there's one definitive advantage in this game, it rests with the Lions' defensive line. The front four could probably handle pass-rush duties themselves, but that's not how things work anymore.
I'd love to pick out specific examples of what Austin will call this Sunday against the Falcons, but his creativity doesn't leave much room for predictive analysis. Instead, let's simply celebrate the myriad defensive looks he brings to Detroit.
Austin's simplest blitzes involve the defensive line crashing down to a particular side while bringing a linebacker or safety around the vacant edge.
This is an example of that call, with Ashlee Palmer as the blitzing linebacker. Palmer embarrasses the attempt at a blitz pickup by the running back and notches a sack for a loss of 9 yards.
This is a similar blitz against Minnesota, only with James Ihedigbo in place of Palmer. The play develops the same way -- the defensive line crashes left, drawing the offensive line with them, while the more mobile blitzing defender has space to work with against the blocking running back. Ihedigbo, like Palmer, earns himself a sack on the play.
Austin also employs a variation of that look, with the DE opposite the blitzing defender faking a rush before dropping into coverage in the flats.
Inevitably, Ziggy Ansah winds up being that defensive end. At the snap, the defensive linemen all take an initial step left, with Tahir Whitehead coming around the right edge from over the left guard. After Ansah takes his first step into the backfield, he backpedals and gets into the flats. As it happens, the Minnesota Vikings run a screen pass to his side, which Ansah absolutely obliterates for a loss. Sometimes you just make the right defensive call, but if you want to believe that Austin is clairvoyant, I won't present an argument to the contrary.
Let's talk about Ansah for a second. I looked at his understated role in the Lions' pass rush a few weeks ago, but I may not have been entirely fair to the emerging Ghanaian terror, because he lines up all over the damn field. I don't know if Austin is just enamored with the fluidity of Ansah's hips -- Austin is a former defensive backs coach, after all -- but he loves dropping Ziggy into coverage. It seems to happen a couple of times every game.
Here's a call with Ansah dropping into the flats again (without an initial step into the backfield) while DeAndre Levy blitzes the B-gap widened by Ndamukong Suh's inside devastation:
Unfortunately, Jerick McKinnon picks up Levy's blitz enough to allow Teddy Bridgewater to escape the pocket and scramble for 4 yards. When you clear extra space for blitzing defenders, you also create more room to escape if they don't get there.
Austin doesn't limit Ansah's coverage duties to the flats as a defensive end. Here's Ziggy lined up as a stand-up linebacker over the A-gap:
Seems like a great opportunity for pressure up the middle, right? Nope. Ansah drops back and covers the middle, clogging up space for shallow crossing routes.
Obviously, this is not a blitz, but it is delightfully crazy to me. More importantly, it works! The Lions force an incompletion on the play. It goes without saying that you can't run this sort of thing all the time, even with Ansah's fluid hips, but the beauty of the Lions defense is that Austin never runs the same thing all the time.
Continuing that trend, here is Ansah lined up as a 1-technique defensive tackle over the left guard's inside shoulder. The 7-technique defensive end on the right is Nick Fairley. (Any time Fairley is lined up as a defensive end, I feel obligated to point out that he ran a faster 40 time than Suh at the Combine. That never ceases to amaze me.)
While Ansah bull-rushes the center/guard combo, Suh stunts into the opposite side B-gap. Jason Jones, meanwhile, stays wide on the edge rush, drawing the right tackle and tight end out to block him. The resulting space on the left-side B-gap is enough for Levy to come through and pressure Drew Brees into throwing an incompletion, which ends up being negated by a defensive holding penalty on Danny Gorrer.
You may have noticed the illustrations becoming increasingly convoluted as we get deeper into multiple alignments by the Lions' front four. Above you'll see Ansah as a stand-up edge rusher far outside the left tackle. Jones is similarly aligned in a 3-point stance outside the tight end on the opposite side, with Suh as a 6-tech over the left tackle's outside shoulder and Fairley over the right guard. Levy and Whitehead both show blitz before the snap, but only Levy comes through. With Fairley occupying the center and right guard inside, Jones twists back inside behind Levy for yet another of the Lions' sacks against the Vikings.
By this point, I think we've established that Teryl Austin does a lot of different things with the Lions' defensive front. I'll leave you with one more.
Palmer is stood up over the tight end, with Jones as the 6-technique next to him. Suh lines up over center, with Ansah again outside as the "Wide-9" DE. And making his first appearance on "Things of that nature" is Lions rookie Caraun Reid, lined up over the left guard's outside shoulder. At the snap, Jones crosses hard inside to the left of Suh, who comes across the center. Palmer takes the tight end straight on, while Ihedigbo and Whitehead blitz around the left edge, leaving one running back to block two defenders. Ansah, as you've come to expect, hangs back and waits for the outlet pass.
This isn't a desperation blitz with the game on the line. This happened in the first quarter.
The play results in a sack for Ihedigbo, but there's another reason I used this screenshot. Because Ansah steps back from the pass rush, Reid effectively takes on a triple-team by himself. Let no one say the Ivy League is disrespected in the NFL.
For all the ways Austin uses his defense to create pressure, the one thing he seems loathe to do is bring a cornerback or the free safety on the blitz. Given how the Lions' defensive backs have covered so far this season, you can understand the logic. Blitzing is inherently a gamble, so if you're going to roll the dice, you might as well do it with your best men in coverage.
Teryl Austin could run all of these looks against Atlanta, or he very well could run none of them. But that's the point -- with Austin's defense, you never really know what's coming. I can't remember the last time you could say that about the Lions defense, and I couldn't be happier about it.