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Can Detroit count on Tahir Whitehead to stop the run?

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We consulted the film. It said: "Yes."

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Detroit Lions v St Louis Rams Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The middle linebacker of the present and future

At the end of the 2015 season, one of the first decisions by new general manager Bob Quinn was to move on from veteran starter 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch. Although Tulloch remained on the roster through early July, it was known well in advance of free agency and the draft that the Lions would need a new starter in the middle. Many fans expected 59 LB Tahir Whitehead, who had started most of the 2014 season after the discount double check incident, would be the new starter. A couple of things clouded the picture:

  1. Tahir Whitehead did not receive a new deal prior to free agency, and became an unrestricted free agent. Several teams (and fanbases) expressed interest in Whitehead, of which we definitely know of the Eagles and Buccaneers.

  2. Although our readers on POD overwhelmingly wanted Whitehead to be brought back, Whitehead wanted to sign with a team that would seriously consider him for a starting job.

  3. It was not clear why Whitehead was underutilized last year, but Detroit’s unwillingness to put him on the field even at OLB was baffling. Since there were no changes on the defensive coaching staff, it seemed on the surface like his desire for a starting shot was not going to find a receptive audience in Detroit.

In the end, everything turned out fine and Tahir Whitehead signed a two-year deal just two days into free agency with the Lions. He is all but declared to be the starting middle linebacker. Both he and the team are on the same page: Tahir Whitehead sees himself as a middle linebacker. General manager Bob Quinn sees Whitehead as a middle linebacker. I think we can call this a done deal:

Whitehead said after the season that he preferred to play the MIKE moving forward, and it appears he’ll get that shot after re-signing this offseason.

"As of today he’s going to play MIKE," Quinn said after re-signing Whitehead.

Being able to settle into the middle is big reason Whitehead re-signed with Detroit after briefly testing the free agent market. For the first time in his career, he’s entering an offseason knowing exactly where he fits in. He admits that’s a great feeling.

"Oh it’s extremely beneficial just knowing that, 'OK, I’m gonna be the MIKE going into the season,’ because now I can focus on solely playing that position," he said. "The last two years, ‘Am I SAM? Am I MIKE? Am I WILL?’ You know trying to figure out which position."

Tulloch’s trade-off: coverage for run-stopping

Prior to the torn ACL injury and resulting lost 2014 season on injured reserve, Stephen Tulloch was regarded as a solid three down linebacker who could do pretty much everything well. After the first few games in 2015, however, it was clear that Tulloch was no longer the same player in coverage and had his role reduced to more of a two down run stopper:

Detroit is pulling Tulloch off the field on passing downs. That has helped him avoid getting exploited in coverage, as he was in the opener, and features what he still does well, which is play instinctively and physically in the box.

"I think Tully has been doing a heck of a job for us," Austin said. "What we've done, I think -- and it's helped him -- is we've streamlined the packages he's in. He's not out completely on pass downs, but we've tried to streamline what he does. And I think that's really helped his game."

The younger and non-injured Tahir Whitehead is widely assumed to be an upgrade over Tulloch simply for being "not Tulloch" in coverage. But what needs to be taken into account (and why some teams might sign him) is Tulloch’s superior run stuffing: outstanding veteran instincts, block shed/avoidance, and tackling technique. The 2014 defense in which Whitehead subbed in for an injured Tulloch was great against the run and put up amazing numbers, but evaluating the linebacker play across the years is complicated by another injury: DeAndre Levy’s lost 2015 season.

When thinking about what the linebackers did in 2014, you can’t really separate what everybody else did from Levy’s ridiculous outlier of a season. Consider the following tackle totals from 2011-2015 as (solo/assist values):

  • 2011: Tulloch (84/27), Levy (73/36), Durant (53/15)
  • 2012: Durant (82/21), Tulloch (74/38), Levy (55/25)
  • 2013: Tulloch (93/42), Levy (85/32), Palmer (24/9)
  • 2014: Levy (121/34), Whitehead (70/21), Bynes (19/4)
  • 2015: Tulloch (74/34), Bynes (54/26), Whitehead (36/11)

For the most part, you had Tulloch as an automatic 100 tackles each season, with much of it in run defense. When Tulloch was injured in 2014, who picked up the slack? Just look at that absurd tackle total posted by DeAndre Levy. So yes, Tahir Whitehead played pretty well, but much of the "linebacker-ing" burden was shifted to Levy while Whitehead got accustomed to the role. Indeed, in early games, Whitehead did not look as good as he did later in the season — totally fair, given that he was being thrown into the MLB spot with short notice and little preparation from camp and preseason on that job.

2014 at NYJ, 4Q (7:06). Second-and-5 at the Detroit 35.

In Whitehead’s second game (this is the week after the Green Bay game) as Tulloch’s replacement in 2014, we have an example of Whitehead still getting adjusted to playing the middle. 93 DE George Johnson gets bypassed by 60 LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who releases to the second level to wall off Whitehead. 21 HB Chris Johnson initially attacks to the right, and is almost brought down for a loss by George Johnson. Unfortunately, CJ2K slips the tackle and bounces back to the left.

On the left you can see George Johnson coming free on the ball-carrier, while Whitehead boxed in orange is about to be engaged by Ferguson. Take note of where Whitehead is standing on the 32-yard line. On the right, after Chris Johnson has bounced the ball back out to the left, we see him about to blow past 27 FS Glover Quin and 54 OLB DeAndre Levy. Again boxed in orange is Whitehead, still being blocked and driven back by Ferguson. This time, he is on the 28-yard line: Ferguson has not only maintained the block for the entire duration of the play to this point, but has driven back Whitehead four yards off his position in run support.

Chris Johnson took this 35 yards to the house to bring the Jets back within one score. Although the Lions ended up winning the game, these early games from Whitehead were not great.

When Tulloch came back, even after getting his workload reduced in passing situations (see Teryl Austin’s comments above) he still racked up a huge pile of tackles. There’s a lot to like about Whitehead’s better mobility in coverage, but how much is being given up in terms of run defense? Can Whitehead provide the same brand of stout run stopping that Tulloch offered? Past game performances from Whitehead in 2014 and 2015 show he has the skills to be a reliable MLB against the run.

Let’s go to the tape.

Shed and Fill

Whitehead will need to be prepared to take on offensive linemen like D’Brickashaw Ferguson who come off combo blocks to wall off the run support. Good technique requires the linebacker to use proper footwork and timing to deliver a move with power to keep the blocker off. Whether using a rip, shoulder shed, or a punch or forearm move, the linebackers in Austin’s defense must be able to get free to make plays in the run game.

2014 NOS, 2Q (9:50). First-and-10 at the New Orleans 10.

From a double A gap look, Whitehead takes on 55 C Jonathan Goodwin and controls the blocker while reading the backfield action. From behind the Saints’ offense, we can see 93 DE George Johnson and 98 DT Nick Fairley take their blockers to the outside and push the play flow back inside. The gap being widened is the backside A gap between Goodwin and 73 RG Jahri Evans. Whitehead sees the lane and pushes Goodwin aside at the right moment to fill the hole:

Excellent timing and upper body work by Whitehead to throw the blocker aside just as the ball arrived. Thomas’ run was bottled up for just a single yard on the play.

2014 MIN, 2Q (13:58). First-and-10 at the Minnesota 25.

75 LT Matt Kalil releases to take out Whitehead, but a great two-hand punch keeps our guy alive to make a play on 23 HB Joe Banyard:

This is straight-ahead power football, and Whitehead steps up into the hole to limit the gain to four yards. Kalil comes at Whitehead with full momentum, lowers his pad level, and takes his best shot but it’s not enough.

2015 GBY, 1Q (13:31). Third-and-1 at the Green Bay 39.

Trying to convert on third-and-short, the Packers run crack toss at the Lions. 17 WR Davante Adams has the crack back block on Whitehead. While still tracking the play and the ball-carrier, Whitehead delivers a solid blow to Adams and bounces right off the block to make the play:

Result of the play was a one yard loss and a punt. Whitehead does a really nice job of navigating the mess of pull action to get through to 44 HB James Starks before he can turn it upfield.

2015 OAK, 3Q (1:32). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 37.

Here is another great example of Whitehead aggressively moving up to initiate contact with his blocker. Standing just inside the right upright of the goalpost from this angle behind the Detroit defense, Whitehead drifts right and delivers a powerful shot to 88 TE Clive Walford before going back inside to take out 28 HB Latavius Murray’s legs.

Plan B: Stay off the block entirely

The other way to stay clean to make plays in run defense is to make sure the blockers never get locked onto you in the first place. Although he’s not DeAndre Levy, Whitehead’s lateral speed is good enough that he can often avoid blockers trying to latch on.

2014 ATL (London), 2Q (6:55). First-and-10 at the Detroit 37.

What we’re looking at here is essentially a counter play from a heavy three TE set by the Falcons. To the left of 62 C James Stone, they have the following players lined up from the inside out: 63 LG Justin Blalock, 70 LT Jake Matthews, 68 OT Gabe Carimi, and 86 TE Bear Pascoe. The blocking assignments call for Carimi to block out to his left, Pascoe to loop back inside Carimi and hook the second level defender to the outside (58 OLB Ashlee Palmer), and Matthews will release to take on the Mike.

In the sequence above, Matthews is boxed in yellow and Whitehead is boxed in blue. At the snap, Matthews goes after Whitehead immediately, but misses the block: Whitehead steps to the left and cuts back in behind Matthews to plug the lane that Pascoe and Carimi are trying to establish for 24 HB Devonta Freeman.

In the full motion GIF of the play, you can see Whitehead take his initial step with the counter action, then read and flow to the hole the play is actually going to. This is a really nice job of avoiding the block of a former first-round pick by Whitehead.

2015 PHI, 3Q (0:25). First-and-10 at the Philadelphia 42.

Not much to this play: Whitehead diagnoses and moves quickly down the line to stay with the Eagles’ sweep by 29 HB DeMarco Murray. At the end of the play, Whitehead keeps 62 C Jason Kelce off the block with an extended left arm and wraps up on the ball-carrier. Also, great dive by 42 S Isa Abdul-Quddus to take out the lead puller and force Murray to jump over a pile.

2015 at CHI, 2Q (13:48). Third-and-inches at the Chicago 34.

Finally, one of the most unexpected plays I've seen in awhile: the Chicago Bears running speed option with 6 QB Jay Cutler and 22 HB Matt Forte. The Bears come out with 82 TE Khari Lee as an in-line blocker on the right side of the offensive line and trips left.

72 LT Charles Leno lets 94 Ezekiel Ansah rush free as the unblocked edge guy for Cutler to read: Ziggy takes the QB and forces Cutler to pitch. Unfortunately for Forte, Whitehead shoves Leno off with his left arm and comes up with a strong tackle-for-loss to force a punt.

A more well-rounded MIKE

Tahir Whitehead does not (yet) have the reputation against the run that Stephen Tulloch had during his time as the starting middle linebacker for the Lions, but he’s got legitimate skills at defeating blockers and filling gaps. As shown above, there’s reason to believe Whitehead simply wasn’t given the playing time to show what he can do. It is interesting to note that Whitehead’s increased workload in 2015 (starting in Week 9 at Green Bay) coincided with the team’s strong run to close out the year.

Better against the pass while probably still decent against the run is a mix I think the Lions can live with. Is Tahir Whitehead primed for a breakout year? It’s probably a little early to declare him a breakout candidate unless delivering play equal to what he provided in 2014 is still considered a surprise for whatever reason. But really, that level of play should not be a shock to anyone who has watched the team for the last two years: based on his existing tape and experience in the system, we should expect solid play from Tahir Whitehead as the new starter in the center of the defense against both the pass and the run.