Bob Wojnowski and Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News discuss the Lions without Calvin Johnson.
Allen Park — Not that long ago, they were vital components on great defenses, middle-of-the-mayhem maulers. Two bumpy detours later, they’re back. Or at least, the Lions desperately hope they’re back.
DeAndre Levy was on the field Thursday for organized team activities, and for a guy who loves journeys, he’s had a crazy one. Two years ago, Levy was the linebacker leader on the Lions’ second-rated defense. He signed a $33 million contract last August and hurt his hip shortly thereafter. He tried to rehabilitate, suffered setbacks, tried to play, then finally underwent surgery in October.
Haloti Ngata was on the field Thursday, too, which wasn’t a surprise. The mild surprise is, at 32 coming off a rough initial season here, he looks and talks more like the guy who spent nine seasons as a force on the Ravens’ menacing defense. He was bothered by hamstring, shoulder and calf injuries last season after arriving in trade to address the void created by Ndamukong Suh’s departure.
Levy and Ngata today aren’t comparable to Levy and Suh two years ago. But if they can provide familiar elements — leadership, power, competitiveness, wisdom — the Lions defense would essentially gain two big bonuses at no extra cost. Levy, 29, is expected to resume his role as savvy playmaker, and while he’s still rehabilitating the hip, he says he’ll be 100 percent by training camp.
“You’re always eager to restart when you have a bad season personally and collectively,” Levy said. “It feels good to have a fresh start.”
Ngata feels the same way, basically starting over in the same place. He was low-key and non-impactful early last season, missing two games due to injury, and there was some doubt whether he’d return. He finished with 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks, and although it was a difficult adjustment after the trade shellshock, he played much better down the stretch.
Now Ngata is embracing a larger role as a mentor to the Lions’ young linemen. He moved his family here and sounds far more engaged, and encouraged.
“This year is definitely different,” Ngata said. “I’m really the oldest guy now with (Darryl) Tapp and JJ (Jason Jones) being gone. It makes it a bigger role for myself. I see a lot of depth, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. We have so many good guys, great guys, it’s gonna be hard to tell who’s gonna come out.”
The Lions have one stellar young defensive lineman in Ziggy Ansah. They have several who could be on the verge of something — Devin Taylor, Caraun Reid, Tyrunn Walker, second-round pick A’Shawn Robinson. The rookie from Alabama is a particularly notable project for Ngata, who understands how the NFL works, that sometimes you help groom your replacement.
Rejuvenation is always more evident in the spring, so caution is required. We’ll see how the defense holds up, and whether new GM Bob Quinn is doing what he promised, restocking the depth. When the Lions flipped from a 1-7 start to a 6-2 finish last season, much of the credit went to Jim Bob Cooter’s new offense and Matthew Stafford’s new efficiency.
But in those closing eight games (against weaker competition, granted), the defense was stout. It allowed an average of 19.4 points, compared to a ghastly 30.6 the first eight games. The Lions finished seventh in the league in sacks, and the improvement might partly explain why they didn’t do much in free agency to upgrade the defense.
Levy will be mentor
Coordinator Teryl Austin has raw talent to work with, a more-manageable task when you have your star linebacker again. Levy will line up alongside Tahir Whitehead, with Stephen Tulloch expected to be gone, although the Lions strangely haven’t released him yet.
While Levy and Ngata have similar revival goals, the contrast was noteworthy as they talked Thursday. Levy, still sporting his scruffy beard, was the reserved one, understandable after missing nearly an entire season. He didn’t want to talk much about his surgery and recovery, or about his pointed criticism of the NFL. At various points in recent months, Levy has used social media and other outlets to protest the NFL’s handling of research and information pertaining to brain injuries in football.
Asked why he spoke out, Levy referred back to his missive.
“I think I wrote about that in the letter,” he said. “Just about educating the players and giving players another voice, other than the league. For the next round of players, and the parents who want to sign their kids up, the NFL’s voice isn’t trusted. So as players, I think it’s our responsibility to give people the truth.”
An important issue obviously, and Levy rarely minces words. He and his peers will play key roles in the educational process — even as they continue to play key roles on the field. Levy now has a football career to resume, after playing in one game last season, a total of 17 snaps. Jim Caldwell and Quinn have said they expect him to return to form, when he was second in the NFL with 151 tackles in 2014.
Strengthening the middle
Levy said he isn’t fully recovered yet, but beyond that, he wasn’t overly interested in explaining the progress.
Do you think you can get back to a high level?
How do you feel right now?
Levy can be a man of few spoken words, while a man of many written ones. Ngata is equally stoic, an immovable rock when healthy. As both try to recapture what they were, neither offers a loud guarantee.
As the Lions try to rebuild, it would help immensely to have fearsome men in the middle again.