The Lions’ defense ran a vanilla scheme last year under coach Jim Schwartz, with most of the pressure coming from the defensive line and the occasional blitz from a linebacker or safety.
With new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, the defense will be anything but predictable. Game to game, play to play, the Lions will give offenses different looks, and based on the first two days of training camp, the personnel will change quite frequently.
“The offense can’t know what to expect every time,” defensive end Daryl Tapp said. “I know a lot of times they get into that same situation where they know that the four front guys always come and maybe a linebacker’s always the blitzer. That’s not the case this year.
“We’ve got so many guys and so many schemes and types of coverages and things of that nature to help us out that we’ll put (offenses) in a real tough situation.”
Under Austin, the Lions hope to have a defense that can create pressure anywhere and anytime, and the new scheme give players a variety of different assignments that they hope will fool offenses before and after the snap.
Coach Jim Caldwell said the defensive substitutions is “not quite like a hockey line,” but it’s looked similar in the front seven so far.
“We have some depth up there and we have some talent,” Caldwell said. “We’re trying to get everybody involved as much as we possibly can, but the big thing is reps are precious. You can see the way in which we work that we try and multiply the number of reps that we have by splitting them up on to different fields for a couple of periods. That’s very important to us.
“That shuffle that you see is one that should be able to pay dividends for us in the long run.”
Subbing defensive linemen in and out is nothing new, but last year the Lions typically would swap personnel by series. Now, it’s going to be much more frequent, especially at defensive end. Jason Jones, Devin Taylor, George Johnson and Tapp have all seen snaps with the first team, and Ziggy Ansah will have a big role when he returns from a shoulder injury.
“It’s awesome,” Tapp said of the constant substitutions. “We have so many guys out here that have talent, and coach Austin and the rest of his coaches are trying to put un in position to be successful.”
Jones could also play some snaps at defensive tackle, and even though Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are the stars on the interior, C.J. Mosley and fifth-round pick Caraun Reid should earn some playing time, too.
The biggest change, though, is with the linebackers. Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy played nearly every snap last season, and when the Lions were in their base defense, Ashlee Palmer was on the field. Even if second-round linebacker Kyle Van Noy earns Palmer’s job on the strong side, Palmer could still have a role on defense, and Tahir Whitehead looks like he’ll earn snaps too.
While the regular changes will help the coaches determine who’s winning competitions, the shifts will give players a breather and keep offenses on their toes in games.
“Coaches are trying to find a role for each player on the defense,” Taylor said. “So getting reps in here or there and rotating people finds out who can do what better, especially in certain situations.”
The secondary may be immune to the play-by-play personnel changes, but cornerbacks and safeties are expecting to do a lot more blitzing than in recent seasons with the Lions. And the pre-snap positioning won’t look the same either as projected starting cornerbacks Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis lined up on the same side on a play during Tuesday’s practice.
Strong safety James Ihedigbo will regularly play closer to the line of scrimmage, too, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stay there once the ball is snapped.
And even though there will be opportunities for more players to see the field, they’re still approaching camp as an open competition for starting jobs.
“There’s nobody tied into a starting job anywhere on this defense, regardless of money, regardless of draft pick,” Tapp said. “You’ve got to come out here and perform every day, and that’s something the coaches have been stressing to us. So you attack it each day as a competition, knowing that competition will make us all better.”