Return of the Levyathan
It is no secret that DeAndre Levy is one of the best defensive players on the Detroit Lions roster. In 2014, he was voted the 59th best player in the league by his peers, and then the 66th best player in the league heading into 2015. Late in the preseason, Levy stopped practicing and missed the first few games of the 2015 regular season with a mysterious hip injury that remains unexplained. Returning to action against Arizona in Week 5 lasted all of 17 plays before the Lions pulled the plug. Without Levy, the defense struggled:
The injury comes at a time where the Lions defense has been ranked #25 in the league by Football Outsiders, #26 in passing defense and #23 in rushing. Levy will almost certainly be ruled out for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.
Caldwell has no doubt that DeAndre Levy will return to form. "There’s no question he’s going to help us tremendously"— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) March 23, 2016
From the official Detroit Lions site's article on Levy's return from March 2016, head coach Jim Caldwell put two skills up front that the linebacking corps had a hard time with in 2015 (emphasis added):
"I’m fully expecting him to be able to do the things he’s always done for us," Caldwell said. "Make plenty of tackles. Be able to cover guys in terms of pass routes out of the backfield and detached."
To demonstrate why having Levy on the field is so important, we go back to two games from the 2013 season, when he was voted the Lem Barney Defensive MVP of the Detroit Lions by his teammates. The plays being considered come from 2013 Week 4 at home against the Chicago Bears and Week 7 at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Pass routes out of the backfield...
DeAndre Levy combines spectacular awareness and play recognition with superior closing speed. This is why seeing him in action to determine if he's truly back to form is crucial: it's the way he closes the gap between himself and the receiver quickly that makes him so effective in coverage. This lets Levy play a little further back than you might expect on shifty backs, preventing them from breaking free on a sharp cut. After seeing the damage that Theo Riddick does for us on offense, Lions fans have a good appreciation for what backs can do in the passing game against linebackers unsuited to coverage responsibilities.
2013 CIN, 2Q (7:55). Second-and-18 at the Detroit 35.
On second-and-long (the TV graphic is incorrect), 14 QB Andy Dalton has a packaged pass play with a slant-flat combination to the left and what appears to be a frontside flood/sail combination to the right. The Lions are in single high with 26 FS Louis Delmas up top, so Dalton is likely reading this as either cover-1 or cover-3 of some kind. Since his primary man beater is to the left (flood is great against cover-2/cover-4), Cincinnati will work the slant-flat side.
The key defender for Dalton on the backside slant-flat read will be DeAndre Levy: he wants to see if the flat defender stays in the alley to take away the slant or if he pursues hard to the flat (thereby opening the lane to the slant for bigger yards). This is explained very well in the Philadelphia Eagles' Anatomy of a Play: Slant-Flat Combo (fast forward to about 1:15 where Ike Reese talks about the offense trying to get the #2 defenders to carry the flat route runners).
Levy hangs back quite a ways, occupying the throwing lane to the slant. For Dalton, this means 25 HB Giovani Bernard leaking to the flat should have a lot of space to run: "He may also target the running back if the defense is in man coverage, the flanker is well covered, but the linebacker is slow in getting to the flat." Against a normal defender staying near the hash, this would be true -- but DeAndre Levy is not normal.
Just look how fast Levy erases the distance between himself and Bernard once Dalton commits to the flat. Pursuing basically from the hash all the way to the sideline, Levy prevents Bernard from getting the corner and limits the gain to six yards.
2013 CHI, 3Q (13:29). Third-and-5 at the Chicago 25.
On third-and-medium, Chicago takes the field with relatively heavy 12 personnel, but decides to line up with almost everyone split wide to go into the pass pattern. Initially, 15 WR Brandon Marshall and 17 WR Alshon Jeffery were both to 6 QB Jay Cutler's left (Jeffery in the slot), but Jeffery motioned over to the slot on the right side of the formation. No response by Detroit to the motion caused Cutler to audible at the line, which in turn created a mess of confusion and adjustments on Detroit's part:
Look back up at the play diagram to where Levy is and where 22 HB Matt Forte is going to run the flat component of the slant-flat to Cutler's left. Levy is still trying to call out adjustments when the ball is snapped, so the offense has a major advantage.
Under no significant pressure, Cutler goes immediately to the slant-flat and thinks he has the linebacker in coverage out of position. The pass goes easily over 94 Ezekiel Ansah's outstretched hand to Forte, but once again Levy is there to make the stop. After reading Cutler, Levy somehow made it over in time to cover the flat on the opposite side of the tackle box for no gain.
2013 CIN, 2Q (1:25). Second-and-7 at the Detroit 19.
The play call here by the Bengals out of a split gun formation has a spot combination (Curl-Flat-Corner) to the left side with 18 WR AJ Green on the "spot" curl, 84 TE Jermaine Gresham in the flat, and 12 WR Mohamed Sanu taking the top off with the 7 corner route. The situation exactly matches what Matt Bowen has to say about the combination:
NFL offenses will use this scheme as a Cover 2, Cover 1 and Cover 4 beater inside of the red zone and on third downs when they have to move the sticks.
Instead, Dalton goes to his right to try Bernard on an F Option route the same way Detroit uses Theo Riddick. Bernard arcs out and runs neutral up the field, then breaks away from wherever the flat defender has leverage. In this case, DeAndre Levy is inside, so Bernard breaks outside to the flat:
The pass goes off Bernard's hands, but Levy was there for the tackle even had he caught the ball. Another example of solid diagnosis and ridiculous closing speed: the gain would have been no more than 3 yards, but the reverse angle replay showed how well Levy played this:
After the ball bounced off of Bernard's hands, he still had a chance of trying to make a play on the ball in the air. To prevent this, Levy immediately got control of Bernard's arms to prevent that. You can see Levy's left hand pulling down Bernard's left elbow and a tomahawk wrap of the entire right arm. There was no way the catch could be made off the deflection.
2013 CHI, 2Q (10:13). First-and-10 at the Chicago 42.
The play calls here appear to be a sort of modified all curls from Chicago against cover-6 by Detroit (shifted to center on the tight formation in the tackle box). On the far left side, 88 TE Dante Rosario runs a vertical 9 up the sideline to clear out space for 17 WR Alshon Jeffery to work. 30 CB Darius Slay (he's backpedaling as a zone defender) carries Rosario back to his deep third assignment, leaving DeAndre Levy by himself against Jeffery underneath.
Levy not only handles Jeffery in coverage, he nearly undercuts the throw for an interception. On the wide angle, it looked like Cutler expected Jeffery to break to the outside underneath Rosario's clearout, but Jeffery instead sat down on the curl.
2013 CHI, 4Q (13:29). Third-and-7 at the Chicago 40.
The play here by the Bears is basically the same thing as before, except flipped and from an empty gun set: all curls with a vertical clearout on one side. This time, Levy is in man coverage over the slot receiver 15 WR Brandon Marshall. Cutler is almost sacked on the play by Ziggy, who beats his man around the edge and gets a fistful of jersey but no takedown. Watch how well Levy stays locked up with Marshall:
Cutler tries to dump the ball to Marshall, but only has a narrow area near the sideline to try and fit the ball in. The ball falls incomplete to bring up fourth down.
An irreplaceable playmaker
Beyond the incredible interceptions, DeAndre Levy's great awareness in space and tremendous closing speed allow Teryl Austin to do things in his defensive calls most coordinators cannot safely consider. For example, how many defensive coordinators have an outside linebacker they would feel comfortable putting in coverage against a No. 1 (Marshall) or even a No. 2 (Jeffery) receiver regularly? Even against smaller, shiftier receivers like running backs (Bernard, Forte), Levy can drop to take away the hook zone window and still get over in time to make plays in the flat.
Given the current roster depth at linebacker and safety, Levy's return is more critical than ever. The loss of Levy in coverage was a major blow to the 2015 Lions defense, which had nobody to take his place skills-wise. I would argue Levy is better in coverage than many safeties (an issue we will come back to in an upcoming film breakdown).
Players with range like Levy make it possible to get good coverage with fewer defenders committed; that means safer blitzing, should Austin choose to send an extra man or two after the quarterback. Getting a fully recovered DeAndre Levy back on the field will show up immediately in underneath pass coverage, preventing many third down conversions of the type surrendered by the defense in the first half of 2015.