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Kelvin Sheppard describes Detroit Lions’ changing roles for linebackers, Julian Okwara

Detroit Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard talked about his changing role, the changing roles of players, and how they’re reacting to the new defensive philosophy.

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Last year, the Detroit Lions hired Kelvin Sheppard to be their outside linebackers coach. It was Sheppard’s first shot at coaching at the professional level, and even though it was out of his comfort zone as a different position than he played—he was an off-ball, inside linebacker in his career as a player—he was up for the challenge after having an informal, three-hour conversation with head coach Dan Campbell.

Under Sheppard’s tutelage, the Lions got some surprise contributions from their edge rushers. In particular, former first-round pick Charles Harris thrived under Sheppard to the tune of 7.5 sacks in 2021, after only tallying 6.5 the first four years of his career combined. Sheppard credited defensive line coach Todd Wash as being a huge help in his first year coaching at the NFL level.

“Without Todd Wash, I would not have had half the success that I did,” Sheppard told Detroit Lions’ Tim Twentyman this week.

After the Lions parted with Mark DeLeone this offseason, Sheppard has now moved to a more familiar role as the new linebackers coach. However, his role isn’t the only one changing. With Detroit’s move to a base four-man front, Sheppard’s outside linebacker room from last year is getting split in two: some are moving to the defensive line room with Coach Wash. Others are dropping back to a more off-ball, outside linebacker role with Sheppard.

For example, Harris—given his size (252 pounds) and ability to both rush the passer and stop the run—will spend most of his time with the defensive line. Julian Okwara, however, has the athletic traits to spend more time off-the-ball, and Sheppard said he’ll be sticking with him.

“I lost my guy Charles (Harris). For the most part, he’s in Wash’s room,” Sheppard said with a smile. “But we have different packages where they come back—I say ‘home’—and I give them some love, send them back. But now we kind of split it. Everybody calls him my son, but J.O. (Julian Okwara) is still with me, because we’ve pretty much split my last year’s room. Half of those guys are true d-linemen in base now versus where last year we had two true OLB (positions).”

A lot of this won’t be new for Okwara specifically. Last year, the Lions tried him all over the field.

“Last year, J.O. lined up everywhere,” Sheppard said. “Over the center, on the edge, split out on the number two. You’ll see him stacked. When you’re able to have versatile players, it opens up the playbook for the coordinator.”

During rookie minicamp, we’ve already seen a couple other players in this hybrid edge defender/off-ball linebacker role. Sixth-round draft pick James Houston appears headed for that competition with Okwara. Natrez Patrick, too, was repping in that role as a tryout during rookie minicamp before earning a spot on the 90-man roster.

The other thing that is changing with this defense is their mentality. Last year, Detroit’s defensive front was more read-and-react or “two-gapping,” meaning the emphasis was on reacting to the offensive line’s movement, then holding position and making sure to not lose responsibility of their gap assignments. Now, the Lions are focused on attacking first, reacting after in order to put more pressure on the offense and dictate the play. While that is more focused on the defensive line, Sheppard explained how it’ll impact the next level of the defense.

“As a linebacker, it’s everything you ever wanted,” Sheppard said. “To a react defense, you have to marry everything that’s happening up front. So they can’t be playing react and we’re just shooting—no. When they play react, it’s a lot of principles that those 3-4 systems have, where you see bigger inside linebackers, because they’re two-gappish type of players. Attack-react is normally involved with 4-3 systems (and is) more attacking. To be honest, that comes top-down from (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn. He is a dictator, in my opinion.

“Defense, I know we’re a reactionary component in football, but we’re flipping the table. We’re trying to dictate to people—and we’re going to do what we do. We’re going to do what we do, and then we’ll react on the move. But we’re lining up and we’re going after you. We’re going to do what we do, and then depending on what you give us, we’ll react accordingly.”

Throughout the interview, you can see Sheppard beaming with excitement not just for his new role, not just the new defensive scheme, but for the opportunities of his players, who he believes to be a better fit under this philosophy.

“(The players) say this, but the temperature of the room is hot right now,” Sheppard said. “They say it, ‘it is hot in here right now,’ because the competition is real.”

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