Allen Park — Entering the 2015 season, the linebacker corps looked to be the Lions’ best unit.
DeAndre Levy blossomed into a legitimate star the past two seasons on the weak side. Stephen Tulloch, the middle linebacker, looked like his old self during the summer after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. Tahir Whitehead, who started 2014 on the strong side before replacing Tulloch in the middle, proved he could be a solid defensive contributor.
The Lions also brought back Josh Bynes, a fine situational player last season. Kyle Van Noy had a fresh start after missing half of his rookie season because of a core muscle injury. And Travis Lewis was back, too, after missing most of last year with a quad injury.
A week into the season, though, the Lions already are answering questions about the unit despite having most of the linebackers who contributed — everyone except Ashlee Palmer — to last year’s No. 2 overall defense and top run-stopping group.
Tulloch looked slow and struggled with some reads in last Sunday’s loss to the Chargers. Levy didn’t play, and it’s unclear when he’ll return as he deals with a hip injury. And Lewis started over Whitehead, so the group looked quite different in Week 1 in addition to performing poorly.
“It’s a matter of just tackling the ball carriers, and I believe that’s what we just have to get cleaned up this week,” Whitehead said of an overall defensive effort in Week 1 in which the Lions allowed 483 yards.
Tulloch might be the biggest concern moving forward as he didn’t look like the same player he’d been in his first four seasons with the Lions. He had at least 111 tackles in each of his three full seasons with the Lions and 20 in the first three games last year, but notched just six Sunday while also struggling in pass coverage.
Of course, some of the issues could be related to Levy’s absence. The game was just the third time Tulloch has played a game without Levy since joining the Lions in 2011. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin declined Thursday to specify anything in Tulloch’s problematic play.
“I’m not going to talk about any individual and how they played, good or bad,” he said.
Austin did say, though, that Tulloch is “fine” physically, which appeared to be the case as he flew around during training camp.
“I’m not sure I can explain why you guys don’t think he had his best game,” Austin said. “It may not have been, but the bottom line is — and it wasn’t just Stephen — we had some things across the board that we needed to get corrected and need to be better at this week, and we’re working toward it.”
The biggest miscues the Lions had were on short passes which the Chargers consistently turned into longer gains, whether it was wide receivers Keenan Allen or Stevie Johnson or tight end Ladarius Green.
“Obviously, we had some problems and we didn’t get them fixed,” Austin said. “And that’s on me.”
Lewis earned the start over Whitehead because he was more productive and played with a physical, downhill style during the summer, Austin said. Whitehead actually ended up playing more snaps, 20-12, Sunday, but he wouldn’t say why the coaches would go with him versus Lewis in certain situations. The Lions first benched Whitehead in the third exhibition, but he didn’t have much reaction when Lewis started Sunday.
“It was like OK, whatever,” he said. “I don’t get paid to make big-time decisions like that as to who’s going to play and who’s going to play how much, or whatever the case is.”
Bynes was the Lions’ best linebacker on the field Sunday, registering eight tackles filling in for Levy. Because the Lions train their linebackers at all three spots, there’s a chance he could stay in the lineup when Levy returns, too.
Against the Vikings on Sunday, the group will have to play better, especially with running back Adrian Peterson back with Minnesota. Looking at his defense as a whole, Austin said he’s not worried because he thinks the issues were correctable.
“I don’t like what happened last week, but I like our guys,” he said.
Lions at Vikings
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Records: Lions 0-1, Vikings 0-1
Line: Vikings by 2
Series: Vikings lead 69-36-2