Allen Park — If you’ve been following along throughout this offseason, you’ve probably heard the word “multiple” used to describe the Detroit Lions’ new defensive scheme a number of times.
But in addition to the anticipated versatility of the unit, linebackers coach Al Golden explains the system is also fluid within parts of the whole, requiring players to problem solve on the fly for the scheme to truly be effective.
“It's a thinking man’s defense,” Golden said. “What they’re embracing right now is not the rote memorization, but their conceptual approach. If you don’t do that, or you fail to do that, you’ll struggle in this system.
“What I guess I’m saying is that if you’re just rigid and it’s just, ‘OK, tell me where to go, how and what to do,’ I think that’s a little inconsistent or incongruent with what this system is. This system is about problem solving and being able to think on your feet, learn to react to certain things. From that standpoint, I think the room is very much congruent with that line of thinking.”
Golden, who is making the transition from coaching the tight ends last season to the linebackers this year, has previous experience in this defensive system, brought to Detroit by coach Matt Patricia.
From 2001-05, Golden served as the defensive coordinator at the University of Virginia, under Al Groh, running the same system. Groh had worked under Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick prior to that stop, directly tying his roots to Patricia’s.
“It’s interesting to see the offshoot and the fingerprints Matt has put on it in that timespan,” Golden said. “It’s a multiple defense. It’s not rigid. Everybody wants to paint you into the corner, but that’s not the M.O. of this defense and it’s certainly not under Coach Patricia.”
Patricia, who worked with the linebackers in New England for several seasons prior to being promoted to the team's defensive coordinator, has professed his love for the position and warned he might be overly hands on with Golden’s group because of that affinity. But it can easily be argued that the linebackers are the key to the defense's success.
The Lions invested heavily in the position this offseason. Devon Kennard was the team’s biggest free-agent signing, while Christian Jones was one of only a handful of players to also score a multi-year deal from the team. Additionally, Detroit brought in Jonathan Freeny, who has experience in the scheme, and recently added Trevor Bates off waivers, who spent a year with Patricia in New England.
One of the main focuses, according to general manager Bob Quinn, was getting bigger at the position. Kennard epitomizes that shift. At 6-foot-4, 256 pounds, he gives the Lions a schematic fit for Patricia’s system they didn’t have on roster prior to the coach’s arrival.
“The first thing, when you see him out there and his pads on, you say, ‘Geez, this guy really passes the look test,’ ” defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. “Big, outside guy, has strength at the point of attack, so he’ll be really good on tight ends. He’s got some good twitch, some good quickness and subtleness to him, and he’s smart, so he’ll be a pretty good edge rusher. I think he’d probably be a good inside pass rusher, too, if you wanted to back him up and blitz him, or whatever. So, he’s a wonderful addition for us to have.”
But the key cog will be Jarrad Davis, last year’s first-round pick. The Lions are anticipating a big jump in his second year, both in production and leadership on and off the field. Thus far, Golden says Davis has been up to the task.
“He’s smart and he prepares really well and is a consummate pro,” Golden said. “He holds himself to a high standard, and he’s not afraid to hold his teammates to a high standard. Accountability starts with him and he’s a good one to have in the room because he embraces the process.”
Golden said he’s fortunate to get his hands on Davis in his second season, after the young linebacker had some time to process the overwhelming amount of information from his rookie year. Now the coach can drill down the focus to five or six things, aimed at incremental improvements for each part of Davis’ game, allowing him to be conceptual thinker the defense demands.
“There’s an onus on him, if you will, to elevate as a leader,” Golden said. “And he’s capable of doing that. From that standpoint, he needs to take a bigger role in the entire unit, not just the position or what he’s trying to do on a daily basis.
“I’m starting feel that way now,” Golden said. “As a coach, you can always look at their body language, how demonstrative they are pre-snap. That usually gives you a good idea, good framework of how comfortable he is, what he’s anticipating or what did he see. I’m starting to see more of that, more animation at the line of scrimmage, being more demonstrative and being more of a problem solver.”