Lions' defense searching for a 'unicorn' at safety
Allen Park — Designing an NFL defense has never been more difficult. There was a record 1,371 touchdowns last season, and the 11,952 points scored were the second-most in league history.
A combination of rules which favor the offense, schemes that spread the field, and more versatile and talented playmakers have made it a daunting task for defensive coordinators to draw up a weekly plan to keep opponents in check.
It's also increased the need for versatile athletes on defense — unique players who can hold their own against the run and are capable of matching up against a wide variety of receiving threats, including increasingly athletic tight ends, in man-to-man situations.
"You're trying to disguise and you're also trying to come up with this guy on your defense who is almost like a unicorn to find, who can be a good run defender, but at the same time, can go up match up on one of these (tight ends)," Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said.
Pasqualoni was specifically referring to the safety position, noting the search for these complete players isn't a new concept. He remembers late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis on the hunt for one in the late 1990s, when Pasqualoni was coaching at the University of Syracuse.
And it just so happened Pasqualoni had a guy: Tebucky Jones.
Jones played running back his first three years at Syracuse, a fact Pasqualoni used to mock his own personnel evaluation skills. But the coach remembered watching Jones dominate as a defense back in high school and decided to boldly switch him back to that role as a college senior.
"I always remember that (high school state championship) game in the back of my mind that Tebucky Jones played safety and made every play," Pasqualoni said. "He made every tackle, and if they threw the ball, it was either complete and he made the tackle, he got his hands on the ball or he intercepted the ball.
"His senior year, I called him in and said, 'Buck, I'm going to move you to safety.' He looked at me like I was crazy."
But Jones thrived in the role, impressing NFL talent evaluators, including Davis. The Raiders ultimately missed out on landing Jones, who was selected in the first round by the New England Patriots and went on to start 73 games over eight seasons.
"Al calls me and says, 'This guy, Tebucky Jones, he's tough as hell. He can support the run, he's athletic and he's fast, he can play man-to-man. That's a rare guy,'" Pasqualoni recalled. "That's how far back it goes. You're looking for that guy who can be tough as hell, support the run and have linebacker qualities, and at the same time, be athletic and fast enough where he can cover either a wide receiver or one of these crafty tight ends, which you're putting up more and more this day and age."
Pasqualoni wouldn't say who that guy is, or could be, on the Lions roster, but the team has a trio of candidates.
The conversation starts with Quandre Diggs, the former nickel turned safety, who despite being on the small side, has never shied away from supporting the run, while proving capable in coverage when manning the slot.
Last year, the team added Tracy Walker to the mix. The rangy 6-foot-1, 206-pounder played sparingly as a rookie, but thrived with his opportunities. He didn't play enough to qualify but Pro Football Focus graded him as one of the league's 10 best at his position against both the run and the pass.
Will Harris, a third-round pick out of Boston College, brings similar size and versatility to the table. And if you put stock in combine numbers, he's even faster, stronger and more explosive than Walker.
"We're going to work our way through preseason camp and try to figure out who those guys are," Pasqualoni said. "We really like the people we have here in the back end."