This is the second in a series of position previews in advance of Lions training camp. Today: Linebackers. See the roster breakdown in the gallery above or by clicking here .
The Lions’ linebackers should benefit significantly from the coaching change this offseason.
With defensive coordinator Teryl Austin taking over, the Lions will be much more aggressive, and that likely means the linebackers will blitz much more than the past few seasons.
While middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and weakside linebacker DeAndre Levy will have more assignments, they’ve proven capable of handling whatever tasks the coaches give them. Each player had at least 119 tackles last season and were a key reason the Lions ranked sixth in the NFL against the run.
The key to the unit this season will be production from the strong side, where second-round pick Kyle Van Noy will battle veteran Ashlee Palmer for the starting job.
Palmer hasn’t had much of a chance to prove himself on defense; he played just 34 percent of the defensive snaps in 2013, despite being the starter last year.
Van Noy, meanwhile, presented enough upside for the Lions to trade up five spots in the second round to snag him. The pass-rushing skills Van Noy showed at BYU make him the favorite to be a starter in Austin’s aggressive scheme, especially since he can play stand-up defensive end in the nickel package. He also showed good coverage skills with seven interceptions in college.
Austin has also said the Lions will likely mix in some 3-4 looks, which could help the bubble players earn a roster spot. However, Palmer’s special-teams prowess would diminish the need to keep a linebacker specifically for coverage units.
Either way, this group has two trusty veterans in Levy and Tulloch, and if Van Noy plays well immediately, linebackers will be among the best units on the team.
Levy played at a Pro Bowl level in 2013 and had career highs in tackles (119), interceptions (six) and passes defensed (15).
But even those gaudy numbers don’t fully explain his importance to the Lions’ pass coverage. The Lions last year gave up one touchdown to opposing tight ends — best in the NFL — and four receiving touchdowns to running backs. That’s largely because of Levy.
On many of his pass break-ups last year, Levy showed instincts similar to solid cornerbacks, with the best being a Week 6 interception of Brandon Weeden in which he picked up Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya on a wheel route, turned his hips to face Weeden and made the catch from an inside position.
Levy also showed great closing speed in coverage. On his Week 1 interception against the Vikings, his first step was toward the line of scrimmage before he ran to catch a quick pass that was deflected by Darius Slay outside the box.
Levy also proved to be capable of covering top NFL wide receivers as three of his pass break-ups came against Alshon Jeffery, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Brown.
Some of Levy’s interceptions came on ill-advised throws by lackluster quarterbacks like Matt Flynn and Weeden, but his ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and quickly determine a pass catcher’s routes made him great in coverage last year. He probably should’ve had eight interceptions in 2013, which would’ve led the NFL.
Lions training camp position previews
Monday: Defensive backs.