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Lions’ three-safety packages could solve linebacker problems

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Teryl Austin’s staff used the bye week to install a great new set of defensive features.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Shrink the field

Here we are a year later and the same complaints about tight ends and the three-step quick passing game carving up the Lions’ pass defense remain. Without DeAndre Levy in the lineup, there simply is not enough coverage ability and closing speed in the linebackers left on the roster. After Delanie Walker led the Titans in receiving against the Lions in Week 2, I wrote that if the defensive coaches “don’t come up with something clever soon, we may be looking at similar big plays being surrendered each week with little changed except the uniforms being worn by the opponent.”

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s group put the off week to good use and indeed came up with something very different than what Lions fans have seen for the past year and a half of football. ESPN’s Michael Rothstein noticed very early in the win against the Jaguars that Austin was up to something:

Interesting first defensive drive for the Lions. After mixing up personnel almost every game early, the Lions ran a three-safety nickel package on every down, using a combination of Glover Quin, Rafael Bush, Tavon Wilson and Miles Killebrew. A more consistent look from Detroit, with Killebrew mostly in on third downs for Wilson.

Three-safety defenses are not terribly revolutionary, and in fact both starting safeties for the Lions come from other teams that used such packages: SS Tavon Wilson from Bill Belichick’s safety talent-laden Patriots defense and FS Glover Quin from Wade Phillips’ Texans defense. Just like they do it at the college level with the old Joe Lee Dunn 3-3-5 descendants and Gary Patterson style 4-2-5 defenses, many NFL defenses use hybrid defenders to get faster and stop high powered passing attacks.

Just how often did the Lions end up using three safeties on defense against Jacksonville? We considered all normal defense formations—meaning all plays the Lions expected to play regular defense, even if blown dead by whistle and thereby not counted as an official snap—and then removed the kneel down at the end of the first half and the three hail mary plays at the end of the second half for the Jaguars’ offense. This yielded 64 total personnel groupings sent on the field with the intent to “play defense”:

  • 41 out of the 64 formations used three safeties (64.1%)
  • 28 were so-called “big nickel” formations with 27 FS Glover Quin, 31 SS Rafael Bush, and 32 SS Tavon Wilson all on the field with an outside linebacker (57 OLB Josh Bynes for 20 of them and 52 OLB Antwione Williams for the remaining eight).

Some interesting things to note about this Quin-Bush-Wilson big nickel defense was that Quin sometimes aligned as a single high safety and Bush sometimes did as well, but Wilson never did so. Wilson always set up either in the box or on the line (occasionally blitzing) like a linebacker, or over a receiver (usually in the slot). Overwhelmingly, Wilson would align over either 88 WR Allen Hurns (6-foot-3 ) or 80 TE Julius Thomas (6-foot-5). Bush occasionally dropped into the box, but never went up to the line to show or actually blitz.

  • The 23 groupings with only two safeties on the field were all nickel formations with 28 CB Quandre Diggs in the game (35.9%). This “Diggs nickel” personnel group always used Quin and Wilson except for three plays which all followed Wilson either delivering huge hits (once in the second quarter and once in the third quarter) or getting rolled up in a pile (midway through the fourth quarter).
  • That means the Lions did not ever send out a single defense with three linebackers on the field. Not even in goal line situations inside the 10-yard line, of which there were five: three Diggs nickel personnel groups and two using three safeties.

So wait, what happened to those other 13 three-safety personnel groups?

The Killebrew third down package

Many people noticed that rookie Miles Killebrew made a bunch of plays in important situations, the most notable of which were third down stops like his stonewalling of 80 TE Julius Thomas in the fourth quarter on third-and-5 to force a punt. What has not yet been mentioned, to our knowledge, is the fact that Killebrew was being put in position to make crucial stops because he was only in the game for important snaps. The following table shows all of the plays where the young safety out of Southern Utah was in the game for regular defense:

QTR Clock Down To Go Field Position
1 9:05 3 3 JAX 42
1 7:09 3 13 DET 47
1 3:42 3 9 DET 46
1 3:28 3 14 JAX 49
1 1:47 3 8 DET 9
2 14:10 3 4 JAX 40
2 11:37 3 8 JAX 8
2 9:13 3 10 JAX 35
2 4:13 3 8 DET 28
3 14:16 3 7 JAX 28
3 10:06 3 2 DET 33
4 14:18 3 5 JAX 39
4 9:08 3 15 JAX 39

All of those situations (one of which was blown dead for a false start penalty on the offense, which is why Killebrew was only credited with 12 snaps and not 13) share one obvious characteristic. What is not as obvious are the following:

  • 27 FS Glover Quin, 31 SS Rafael Bush, 23 CB Darius Slay, 24 CB Nevin Lawson, and 59 MLB Tahir Whitehead were in the game for all thirteen of these formations.
  • All thirteen formations also featured 28 CB Quandre Diggs, so in reality this was not a three-safety nickel defense - it was in fact a dime defense with six defensive backs in the game.
  • Killebrew was never on the field with an outside linebacker (either 52 OLB Antwione Williams or 57 OLB Josh Bynes) or 32 SS Tavon Wilson.
  • All but one of these formations had the same four defensive linemen in the game: 94 Ezekiel Ansah, 61 DE/DT Kerry Hyder, 92 DT Haloti Ngata, and 98 DE Devin Taylor. Only once was the back seven players paired with a DL of 69 DE Anthony Zettel, 99 DT Khyri Thornton, 96 DT Stefan Charles, and Ziggy.

What this suggests is there is a very specific set of defensive calls built for a fixed personnel package of the same eleven players (that one play with a different DL is an outlier). Moreover, this package is specifically designed to operate on third downs. How can we be sure of that? Only once—in the third quarter with 11:59 on the clock on third-and-2 at the 50-yard-line—did Jacksonville face a third down against anything but this Killebrew package (it was a regular nickel with Bynes on the field).

That Austin essentially replaced Wilson with Killebrew while keeping Bush on the field implies they are somehow being used as substitutes. Remember, Wilson was the safety in the big nickel look who was always being pushed up into the box or on the line to blitz and cover big bodies. Given their size and athleticism, this is sensible: Killebrew is 6-foot-2 and Wilson is 6-foot-0, and both are athletic hitters who could substitute for linebackers as hybrid defenders. Here’s what I wrote earlier in an article on Wilson:

Getting by with two starting linebackers: the 4-2-5

As the roster currently stands, the starting linebackers in base 4-3 personnel would be DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, and Josh Bynes. I’ve said elsewhere that an interesting possibility would be to use 6-foot-2 Miles Killebrew as a hybrid defender to gain experience and minimize the depth issue at outside linebacker. Tavon Wilson provides a veteran alternative: he’s had four years of development for that role in New England.

Forget about the 4-3 versus 3-4 debate. If Bob Quinn is serious when he says "we’re going to be in sub defense, nickel defense for close to 70-percent of the time," why not go to a base 4-2-5 defense with Wilson and Killebrew as the third safety on the field? When we need to go lighter and play the pass more, swap to the Quandre Diggs "true nickel" package, but otherwise Wilson (and possibly Killebrew) can replace a linebacker for better match-ups against tight ends.

Going with the slightly larger Killebrew to compensate for also putting the diminutive Diggs on the field as well makes sense. The end result is a defense which is amazingly faster with better pass coverage skills than any of our current linebackers could ever provide. Robbed of DeAndre Levy’s freakish closing speed at linebacker due to injury, Austin’s three-safety formations get this back by replacing him with a defensive back who can both hit and run (whether Killebrew or Wilson).

Our Kent Lee Platte is tremendously impressed with where Killebrew is in his development; going from an FCS program to this is a big deal. At first I thought the particular assignments in the special third down package were probably being limited a la TCU’s 4-2-5 to let him focus on doing only a few things or small bite sized pieces of the playbook. On viewing the tape again last night to verify some counts and personnel with the All-22, I realized I was wrong.

To get an idea of how good this kid’s football instincts are, re-watch the Rafael Bush pick six and follow Killebrew. Realizing Bush is staying alive and can keep running after the first juke, the rookie immediately turns and looks for someone to block. Without Killa’s key block on 64 G Chris Reed, Bush would have been pushed out of bounds after maybe a five yard return instead of breaking down the sideline for points.

What is most encouraging and exciting about these defensive packages is that they are putting faster defenders on the field to aggressively address Detroit’s problems in pass coverage and edge pressure. Sure, it was “only Jacksonville,” but the performances of Killebrew, Bush, and Wilson show these safeties are capable of taking advantage of clever scheming to make a difference.