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Film review: Akeem Spence was a great find for Detroit’s defense

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A fine preseason demonstrated the former Buccaneer is poised to contribute immediately.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Ready for bigger things

When Akeem Spence was signed to a three-year contract in free agency, many of us did not know a whole lot about him. At times, we would hear Tampa Bay fans tell us he was solid depth or a good backup to have, probably behind Haloti Ngata or A’Shawn Robinson on the depth chart. But that is not really the way that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek operate: defensive linemen rotate in and out of the game after a certain number of plays to keep whoever is on the field fresh and attacking at full speed. From ESPN’s Michael Rothstein:

Spence knows there will be more of a rotation of linemen in Detroit than in other places around the league. The Lions rotate their defensive linemen similar to line shifts in hockey or lacrosse, where guys will get a certain amount of plays before coming out based on either rotation or scheme situation.

It allows a player to be more aggressive and "go all out for four plays" before subbing out as part of the rotation. It is a freeing proposition.

Spence wants to be the kind of attacking penetrator Austin had in his fantastic 2014 defense. According to the new guy, he looks forward to creating disruption on the inside:

"I was looking at that and talking to coach Kris before I was making my decision, he told me he was going to give me that opportunity," Spence said. "You know what I'm saying, just to be free, play in people's backfields.

"You know, most coaches say that and then when you get here, they want you to read, playing blocks. But he kept his word."

Each season, it seems like the Lions find defensive tackles in free agency that they like—Tyrunn Walker in 2015, Stefan Charles in 2016—but get mixed results. Obviously, Walker could not control opponents taking cheap shots at his leg, but is this the year a free agent man in the middle pays off?

Heading into the regular season, we now have a decent amount of preseason tape to see the toolkit Spence brings to the party, and it is honestly quite good. Yes, we know “preseason” and “level of competition” and all that, but the big thing is seeing that Spence not only has the individual technique side working, but appears to already be playing with a very high level of understanding of the team’s defensive scheme. Haloti Ngata was not kidding in early August when he said Jordan Hill and Akeem Spence have adapted to Austin’s defense quickly:

“They’ve picked it up so fast,” Ngata said of his new teammates. “The thing is, I think they just kind of bought in faster. They bought into the system, they bought into what we wanted them to do and they just took off with it.

“Even my first year here it took me a little while to get it, to see them get it so fast is just amazing.”

Staying clean and making plays

Detroit’s scheme wants defensive tackles to dominate gaps, pushing up the field to compromise the blocking integrity of the play design of a run or collapse the pass protection pocket. They need to be able to shed blocks and get off on the snap quickly, with enough agility and speed to work in the twist game as well. The first three preseason games provided good evidence that the 25-year-old defensive tackle definitely has the core tools to get the job done. We begin with back-to-back plays from the second preseason game against the New York Jets to highlight his upper body work.

2017 Preseason NYJ, 1Q (7:18). First-and-10 at the New York 28.

Boxed in pink, 97 DT Akeem Spence is working one-on-one against Jets starter 67 RG Brian Winters. To his outside shoulder, 90 DE Cornelius Washington will rush to the outside against 72 RT Brandon Shell. The offense tries a three-step hitch for five yards from 5 QB Christian Hackenberg to 11 WR Robby Anderson.

What you see in the pink box on the left panel is Spence firing out of his stance and punching back Winters’ left shoulder, then blowing by with a rip move. Here is a breakdown of the pass rush combination move from Five Star Linemen Academy:

This sack shows what pairing good man coverage and an inside pass rush can do for the Detroit defense. On the back end, 24 CB Nevin Lawson reacts fast enough to jump the route and force Hackenberg to hold off on the quick throw. Coming up the middle instead of off the edge like an outside linebacker or defensive end, an inside penetrating defensive tackle can get there fast enough to mess with the quick passing game.

Before the quarterback can reset his feet and look elsewhere, Spence is in his face for minus-five yards on a sack instead of plus-five yards on an easy throw.

2017 Preseason NYJ, 1Q (6:43). Second-and-15 at the New York 23.

On the very next play, the Jets try to catch the Lions off balance and run the ball on second-and-long. Spence is double-teamed on the play by Winters and backup 78 C Jonotthan Harrison. This snap by Spence was one of the most impressive individual effort snaps of the entire preseason for the Lions’ defensive line. A lot is going on, so we will break down the action a few frames at a time before seeing it at full speed.

In the upper left, Spence engages with Winters and Harrison off the snap immediately. His reaction is to drop his left hand and shove Winters off to his left with his powerful right hand. By the upper right frame, Spence is bringing that dropped left hand back up under Winters to get it onto Harrison. A split-second later in the lower left and lower center images, Spence is throwing Harrison off to his right. In the final shot of the lower right, the defender is unblocked and has a clean shot behind the line of scrimmage at the ball-carrier.

Squaring up against a running back like 29 HB Bilal Powell, Spence holds his ground and finishes the play to set up third-and-long. Just really great stuff against New York’s first-team offense.

2017 Preseason at IND, 1Q (3:15). Third-and-8 at the Indianapolis 44.

We now go back to the first preseason game against the Colts to take a look at Spence’s lateral agility and acceleration, which will be important assets in schemed blitzes that Austin likes to call on third down. Here on third down near mid-field, the Lions are lined up in a double A-gap look with 59 OLB Tahir Whitehead and 40 MLB Jarrad Davis crowding the line. Whitehead will blitz, while Davis drops into shallow coverage (purple arrow and zone) over where the helmet is painted on the turf.

Lined up as the left defensive tackle, Spence loops around (yellow arrow) behind Whitehead and 91 DT A’Shawn Robinson to end up next to 79 DE Alex Barrett on the far side. At the snap the push from right to left by Whitehead and Robinson opens a nice lane for Spence to shoot through—if he is fast enough to get there.

As 16 QB Scott Tolzien’s back foot hits on his five-step drop, look at Barrett winning on the outside in red but also Spence trucking around in yellow. While Barrett is further up the field, the presence of the looping defensive tackle coming up inside prevents Tolzien from stepping up to evade the outside rush. Instead, the quarterback is forced to unload a terrible off-balance throw to avoid a sack.

Getting dirty and making “team” plays

Earlier in the preseason, we looked at Nevin Lawson’s contributions to overall team defense that did not show up on the stat sheet. Indeed, the first play at the top of this article had Lawson in close enough coverage on Robby Anderson to help make a sack possible. This kind of thing goes both ways, and the defensive tackles can make great things happen for teammates by eating up blockers and funneling traffic to where the back end help is waiting to pounce.

2017 Preseason NYJ, 2Q (14:04). First-and-10 at the New York 21.

The Jets line up in an I-formation and go with inside lead zone to the right. Formation-wise, 88 TE Austin-Sefarian Jenkins is an in-line blocker off the left tackle’s shoulder, while 43 FB Julian Howsare will lead for Powell into the hole on the front side of the play. We can clearly see in the lower panel of the split graphic that the entire blocking front is stepping in unison, so it has to be a zone run.

Our man of interest is in the B-gap between Winters and backup 79 RT Brent Qvale. At the front edge, Qvale takes on Zettel and Winters is on Spence. Now focus in on what is happening on the right side of the offensive line.

In the first far left panel boxed in pink, we can see the zoomed portion of the zone step panel from before with Winters and Spence dead center. Getting to the middle panel, look at how much arm extension Spence has on the guard. For that matter, look how Zettel has the tackle completely halted and stood up: there is no gap for Howsare to even lead Powell into.

On the far right panel, we also see Zettel totally controlling Qvale with a full arm extension, essentially trading two-for-one with the offense by occupying both the tackle and fullback. Powell will stop and cut back into the mush pile, where 28 CB Quandre Diggs flies in for a huge stop on first down.

The thing that causes New York to gain nothing on this play, though, is Akeem Spence throwing back Brian Winters at the point of attack. He takes command of the aim point for Bilal Powell a full two yards behind the line of scrimmage, breaking the momentum of the run even without making contact with the ball-carrier.

Young (and talented) enough to be in the succession plan?

When Spence first came to the team in March during free agency, Nate Atkins from mlive.com noted how the young free agent always looked to learn from superb players like Gerald McCoy while with the Buccaneers and now Haloti Ngata on the Lions:

"He just helped mold me as a player, as a pro," said Spence, who started as a rookie in Tampa Bay before moving to a transitional role the past three years. "I mimic some stuff he does, but I'll never be Gerald."

It was an asset the 25-year-old knew he'd lose by leaving town in free agency. He decided to sign with the Lions on a three-year, $9 million deal largely because the techniques he saw on film rivaled the ones he used in the Tampa-2 defense under Lovie Smith.

But an added benefit, at least for now, will be learning under an even more seasoned veteran at the position in Haloti Ngata.

"He's a big guy, and he's been in the NFL 11-plus years, man," Spence said of Ngata. "This season, I'm going to be picking his brain, trying to learn everything I can from him. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge."

Consider two plays from the first half against the Patriots. First up is the play where 92 DT Haloti Ngata was called for defensive holding.

2017 Preseason NED, 1Q (9:37). First-and-10 at the New England 26.

Here’s Chris Spielman explaining the penalty on the broadcast:

Rarely do you see that called, where the interior defensive lineman is called for grabbing. And what he’s trying to do by holding right there (circles Ngata on-screen), is he’s trying to help his linebackers run free. Which, Tahir Whitehead did run free through the hole. That’s part of his responsibility.

Ngata engulfing both blockers clears Whitehead to shoot the gap on the bottom and 27 FS Glover Quin to shoot the gap on the top (making the tackle). The penalty is an iffy one, and Spielman is right: it rarely gets called. Most of the time with no flag, that is a stop for no gain.

Next, consider the “Drive him back Jarrad! You’re getting it, son! You’re getting it! All right!” play at the end of the second half. Akeem Spence is the left defensive tackle in the formation.

2017 Preseason NED, 2Q (0:38). Second-and-6 at the New England 23.

If 45 S Charles Washington (visible at the left edge of the play toward the end) had come up inside as Quin had done in the Ngata play, it would have been an identical setup: defensive tackle occupying two blockers, safety in left lane running free to make the tackle, and linebacker in right lane running free to shut down the cut-back option.

Akeem Spence knows it’s tough and probably not realistic to try and duplicate the careers of Gerald McCoy or Haloti Ngata, but he has everything necessary to become an effective and valuable player in his own right. He has fine power and technique to win one-on-ones and deal with double-teams, fits into Austin’s brand of unselfish team football from the rotational linemen, and definitely has the right attitude for this squad:

And when the Detroit Lions came calling in free agency, Spence turned to one of his college teammates, Lions safety Tavon Wilson, for advice.

"He recommended this place as a high reference point," Spence, who played three seasons with Wilson at Illinois, said during an introductory conference call with Detroit reporters today. "Just the way they’re going, they were a playoff team, and they’re building something special here. I just really wanted to be a part of that."