The Detroit Lions had a problem stopping the run last season. Like, a serious problem. Detroit ranked 31st in rush DVOA, allowing 2,296 yards and 135 first downs on the ground—both of which placed them in the bottom five teams in the NFL.
Of course, there’s a lot that goes into stopping the run. Your defensive front needs to be sturdy along the interior, not allowing offensive linemen to get hands on them and dictate the action. Defensive ends need to set the edge and not give runners the opportunity to bounce something outside in space. For the 2021 Detroit Lions, they had problems stopping the run at all the above.
According to the great data housed over at Sharp Football Analysis, the Lions were gashed all over the place, but most often, teams were running the football right up the middle on Detroit. In 2021, teams ran the football 111 times up the center at a healthy 4.8 yards per carry. But a solid run defense isn’t the sole responsibility of the defensive front; the linebackers, the second-line of defense, need to make good on their reads and assignments to limit the yards gained on the ground.
If Detroit wants to improve in this respect, and drafting players like Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal certainly will help along the edge, their linebackers will have to step up to make a difference in the Lions ability to stop the run.
This leads to today’s Question of the Day...
Do you believe in the Lions' depth at linebacker?
“Some coaches gripe and moan, ‘Oh, I didn’t get a high pick. I didn’t get a high-paid free agent,’ where I’m the opposite. I embrace it,” said Sheppard about the Lions' approach to the linebacker position this offseason. “Because what I see—I tell the players this—I see myself. I see myself in that room. I see hungry players who are freakin’ biting and champing at the bit of that opportunity to go and have a contract-type year.”
To Sheppard’s point, Lions general manager Brad Holmes didn’t make any splashy moves to improve the linebacker position this offseason. Instead, he opted to re-sign Alex Anzalone, bring back Jarrad Davis after his sabbatical in New York with the Jets, and replace Jalen Reeves-Maybin’s special teams acumen with special teams ace Chris Board from the Baltimore Ravens. He added a pair of sixth-round picks in FCS standout James Houston from Jackson State and everyone’s favorite Day 3 draft pick Malcolm Rodriguez to bolster the youth and depth at linebacker. Aside from that, Holmes—and Sheppard—are counting on these players, including second-year player Derrick Barnes, to help lift one another’s game.
“Out of all of those guys we have in that room, it’s going to be a bloodbath in there,” commented Dan Campbell to the press on Thursday. “There’s a ton of experience, there’s a ton of youth, there’s a ton of energy. I think when you combine it with the type, and on top of that every one of those guys that’s in there is competitive. They’re highly competitive. I just think, man, when we come out with the finished product and the two or three that are left standing—there will be more than that, but my point is, I think we’re going to be excited about those guys.”
Without any player having a hold on a starting spot, the hope is competition brings out the best this group has to offer. After watching a player like Anzalone struggle last season to clean up plays and make tackles, the thought of him returning as the team’s starter at MIKE is concerning. Anzalone finished first in the league in missed tackle percentage (21.2) with at least 50 percent of 1,218 snaps played, but as a team captain last season, his value on the roster seems to be in his intangibles and leadership. And beyond Anzalone, none of the players on the Lions roster have much, if any, starting experience at the NFL level.
So the question heading into training camp will persist: without any starter-level talent at linebacker currently on the roster, will the proverbial cream rise through competition and bring a couple of starters to the top of Detroit’s depth chart?