Allen Park – The Lions’ defense isn’t just going to look different than it’s looked the last five years -- it’s likely to look different from week to week.
“We are going to try and give the offense as many looks as we can, bring people from different angles and try to make them adjust to us instead of us always adjusting to them,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Tuesday.
While it is still technically a base 4-3 system, Austin said to expect three-man, four-man and five-man fronts with tackles, ends and outside linebackers all moving around the formation.
“I am not going to be married to anything,” Austin said. “What we’re going to try to be married to is what’s best for our guys that week, that game.”
Safety Glover Quin put it like this:
“As a man and being married and having a house, I feel like if you have a whole bunch of tools you kind of walk around looking for stuff to fix because you just want to use your tools. When you don’t have a lot of tools, you are kind of like, ‘Nah, I can get it tomorrow.’
“Going into games, having a bunch of different tools we can use, we are going to look for those opportunities to figure out which ones work best.”
Contrary to the popular notion, the Lions have bolstered its defensive tool box this offseason. They signed free agent safety James Ihedigbo, who has played in and is well-versed in Austin’s plan. Ihedigbo is more of a box safety, which will free returning starter Glover Quin to play more of a free safety role – which is his strength.
Up front, they have a healthy James Jones, a big defensive end who is a strong interior rusher, which is vital if you are flopping tackles and ends or using multiple fronts. The system is also designed to take more advantage of the size and athleticism of ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor.
They used their second-round pick on a unique, multi-skilled outside linebacker in Kyle Van Noy, who has the athleticism to rush like a defensive end and to cover like a linebacker.
They added a veteran hybrid end-linebacker in Darryl Tapp.
“What people are going to notice is the speed we’re playing at,” Quin said. “They are going to notice more blitzes, at least they are going to see more blitz looks – we may be blitzing and we may not be. Basically they are going to see a fast, physical and relentlessly attacking defense. That’s what we’re going to strive to be.”
Lacking big plays
It should be noted that the Lions’ second-half fade was not a byproduct of poor defensive play. They ranked 15th in scoring defense (allowing 23.5 points a game) and were among the leaders in both red-zone and third-down defense.
What they lacked last year – the last two years, actually – were big plays. They only forced 22 turnovers last season, 15 interceptions and seven fumbles. They were near the top of the league in pressuring the quarterback but near the bottom in sacks. They were among the worst in allowing plays of 40 or more yards.
Right or wrong, the defense was criticized by some national pundits as being too vanilla, too predictable.
“It’s a long season and teams have a whole week to scout you,” Quin said. “After Week 4 or 5, if you’re not changing things up, they can hone in on what you are doing. They can come up with a game plan to make you re-evaluate things.”
Austin seems to be working hard to make sure that won’t be the case this season.
“For offenses to come into games not knowing what to expect or what we’re going to do, us mixing it up and keeping the offense on its toes -- even if we’re not doing anything different, just giving different looks -- that can make a big difference, as well,” Quin said.
Intensity in practices
It’s all a theory right now. Some players are adjusting to the changes and the new demands better than others. There have been some team scrimmages during the non-padded, no contact OTAs where the defense has completely stifled the offense. There were others, like Tuesday, where the defense was, as Austin said, “sloppy.”
And there is still a nagging, potentially damaging concern at cornerback, where veteran Chris Houston’s status is cloudy after toe surgery.
“I think we have some nice, young talent, but it’s young,” Austin said, talking about the cornerback position. “It doesn’t have game experience, so it’s really, right now hard to tell how they’ll react when we get into game-like situations.
“That’s what we are doing here, putting the pressure on them, the tempo, all those things trying to get them into as many game-like situations as we can so we see how they respond. So far, you know, some of the young guys are doing some good things, but they’re still young.”
Bottom line, though, the players appear to be enthusiastic about the new system. Certainly in the practices open to the media, it’s been the defensive players bringing the intensity in the team drills. And as Quin said, the system is proven, it us up to the players to make it work.
“It’s more fun,” Quin said. “It forces guys to study more and learn what’s going on because in order to be able to dictate to the offense what they’re going to do, we have to know exactly what we’re going to do.”