Lions linebackers might blitz more this season

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
DeAndre Levy

Alllen Park — DeAndre Levy had just one sack during his first five NFL seasons.

With a stout defensive line and a porous secondary, the Lions rarely blitzed with their linebackers under defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham from 2009-13. Levy followed directions and played his role in the scheme, but he’s glad to have a few more opportunities to hit the quarterback now.

“We used to joke about it all the time as linebackers, but that was just the (old) scheme,” Levy said. “I think any linebacker wants to blitz. You can get back there, get some sacks, get some hits on the quarterback, but it was part of the scheme, so you just do what’s required of you.”

With new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin implementing his scheme last year, Levy finally added to his lone career sack from 2011, posting 21/2 sacks along with a career-high four quarterback hits. And if the first two exhibition games were any indication, the Lions will continue using their linebackers to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Though Austin discussed a desire for an attacking defense when the Lions hired him in January 2014, their improved secondary made it much easier to blitz without creating easy opportunities for the opposing offense. Glover Quin, a 2013 free-agent signing who played hurt most of his first year in Detroit, and James Ihedigbo, who joined the Lions in 2014, were one of the NFL’s top safety tandems in the league and played a key role in limiting big plays. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis were reliable cover men on the outside, too.

Levy probably would’ve had more sacks last year if Stephen Tulloch stayed healthy, but with Tahir Whitehead learning to play middle linebacker on the fly, Levy had to handle extra responsibilities last year.

With Tulloch back and Whitehead an improved player, the Lions should feel even more confident sending their linebackers in blitz packages this year. In his two-plus games last season, Tulloch had two sacks, which put him on pace to crush his career high of 31/2 from 2013 when he was the only Lions linebacker with a sack.

In Thursday’s game against Washington, Levy had a huge quarterback hit on Robert Griffin III, narrowly missing a sack, and the Lions lined Levy and Tulloch between defensive linemen to show blitz on a few plays, keeping the offensive line off-balance.

“We did it all last year,” Caldwell said of using linebackers to add pressure. “It’s something that we do, and we don’t shy away from it. We’re active in that regard.”

As hard as Levy’s hit was on Griffin, don’t expect him to do something similar in Friday’s preseason game in Jacksonville.

“I try to save those hits for the regular season,” he said.

Early in training camp, Austin explained that — with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley gone — the pressure from the defense could look a little different than it did in 2014. Ihedigbo had a couple sacks, so he could blitz more. And Levy said he’s worked to improve at the new skill, too.

“Knowing that you’re going to be doing it, you want to take pride in it,” he said.

Levy said he watched a lot of film of other teams sacking quarterbacks. He also watched the signal-callers closely to learn their cadence. In practice, he’d work on various moves he wanted to use in games.

“It’s something you have to consciously work on, get your timing right, know how to set up your blitzes to hit your gap,” he said. “And it’s something I’ve kind of tried to make an effort to improve on now that we’re doing it more often.”

Levy said he hopes to turn blitzing into a “weapon,” and with his speed and Tulloch’s savvy, it could be one for the Lions in 2015. Even if they don’t produce many more sacks, hits on the quarterback take their toll and having more players in the backfield can disrupt the run game, too.

“I think that’s part of our package,” Caldwell said of Levy and Tulloch blitzing. “We’ll give you some problems in those areas.”