Martin mayhew moving quickly For defensive coach

>> 12.29.2008

The shakeup in Allen Park has been both swift and decisive.  "Decisions" coming from Big Willie Style (+posse) usually involve a lot of leaked rumors, contradictory press releases, and sometimes even contradictory press conferences (Millen: "we have decided to retain Marty Mornhinweg for next season.  Wait, what?  They fired Mooch?  Uh, everyone turn around and plug your ears for a minute while I make a couple calls .  . . ").

The way this organization typically does business, I expected the Marinelli firing midweek, the announcement of the promotion of Mayhew and Lewand in a couple-three weeks, and the coaching search to begin shortly after that.  But for once, the Lions have a least a few of their ducks in what appears to be something not unlike a row.  The power structure is in place, and the huge list of variables has already been winnowed down to one: the Head Coach.

Evidently Mayhew knows exactly what's at stake; he must get the best available candidate as soon as possible.  There are a ton of openings this offseason, and if the music stops and there are no chairs left, we're looking at a repeat of the Mornhinweg hire.  Millen waited on his first choice, Mooch, and when Mooch didn't come available, Millen poked around for a little while, and eventually settled for Mariucci's right-hand man, presumably to lay the foundation for the glorious day when Mooch would come home--we all know how both of those hires played out.

Mayhew, however, has spent his first day on the job lining up a Who's Who of hot candidates.  Adam Schefter reports that the Lions have sought permission to interview, in a mildly particular order:

  • Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo
  • Cowboys Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett
  • Titans Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz
  • Vikings Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier
  • Redskins Defensive Backs Coach Jerry Gray

I'll be breaking each of these down over the next couple of days, also in mildly particular order.  However, we can see a pattern emerging here: coordinators (or former coordinators) with no head-coaching experience; most from solid coaching trees; some are former players.  With the exception of Garrett, they're all defensive coaches.  I think this speaks to the crucial point: as awful as the Lions' woes at quarterback and offensive line have been, it's been the wet-newspaper defense that's really pounded the nails in the Lions' coffin.  Just look at the numbers:

  • Scoring Defense: Ranked 32nd--and it isn't close for 31st--with 517 points allowed (32.3 per  game!).  That's over double the amount of points that either the Steelers or Ravens allowed.
  • Yardage Defense: Ranked 32nd, with 6,470 yards allowed.
  • Passing Defense: Allowing a mere 3,716 yards passing makes slots the Lions' D 27th here, but that's highly misleading as no team had fewer passes attempted against them (an average of only 27.7 attempts per game against).  Opposing QBs, on the average, had a passer efficiency rating of 110.9--just think about that; every quarterback in the league becomes Steve Young at his peak when facing the 2008 Lions.
  • Rushing Defense: Ranked butt-naked last.  2,754 yards allowed on 536 carries; despite getting run at more times than any other defense save Seattle and Oakland, the Lions still allowed a mind-boggling 5.1 yards per carry.  Every running back in the league became Jim Brown against the 2008 Lions.

    I knew the defense was dire . . . but looking at the numbers, this is simply unbelievable.  What's worse is that the numbers can't show how inopportune this defense was; stuffing the run on first down, getting the sack on second down, allowing the 35-yard completion on third down.  Over and over and over and over, the Lions defense would show flashes of what they were meant to be for a play or a series or even a quarter--but when it mattered, the Lions defense could be absolutely counted on to play like they had forgotten to put a few guys out on the field.

    This is Marinelli's greatest failure (though arguably not the failure that actually got him fired, more on that another time): brought in as a tough-minded defensive coach who taught fundamentals, execution, and consistency above all else--hell, to the exclusion of all else--the fundamentals, execution, and consistency of this defense were all putrid.  In fact, considering the meh-to-adequate run game, the tepid efficiency + occasional Megatron passing attack, and outstanding kicking game, it was the Pop Warner tackling, blown assignments, awful run fits, overpursuing LBs, and the complete and total inability to prevent TEs from catching and scoring at will--everything Rod Marinelli preached as being vital to a team's success--that were the things most lacking from this team.  I can't explain how or why, but what he preached in practice (and if you believe everyone in Allen Park's repeated insistence, what was happening in practice) wasn't making it onto the field.  I do believe this is partly due to lack of talent--a big part of "talent" is football intelligence and instincts; you can show a horse film and give him grades but you can't make him cover a tight end downfield.  However, Rod consistently pushed to acquire raw prospects he thought he could 'coach up', yet few of these ever became more than what they were.

    Speaking of which, the defensive larder is now full of Marinelli projects: DT Andre Fluellen, DEs Dewayne White and Cliff Avril, DE/DT Ikaika "Five-O" Alama-Francis, LBs Ernie Sims and Jordon Dizon, safties Daniel Bullocks and Gerald Alexander.  There are also the holdovers from the Mooch era that fit the Marinelli mold: DTs Cory Redding and Shaun Cody, LBs Paris Lenon and Alex Lewis, and CB Travis Fisher.  Finally, the Marinelli/Tampa microwave-nuked leftovers: DT Chuck Darby, LB Ryan Nece, CB/S Dwight Smith (CB Brian Kelly was released midseason).  

    There are quite a few good players on that list.  The roster of presumable "keepers", starting with Marinelli's speciality, the defensive line:

    Dewayne White, when healthy, has shown the ability to consistently get at the passer--though he does it more with size and strength and technique than sheer speed.  To be honest, he reminds me quite a bit of Robert Porcher.  The difference is that Porcher manned the left side, where he could square off against slower right tackles who couldn't keep pace with his speed.  White was being asked to fill the Dwight Freeney/Simeon Rice role in Marinelli's Tampa 2, where he often did well anyway.   Cliff Avril, the OLB/DE 'tweener that some saw as a 3-4 blitzing OLB (see Woodley, Lamar), didn't get much time early.  But late in the season, he consistently showed the edge speed tenacity, and awareness to sack the quarterback.  Believe it or not, Cliff Avril led all NFL rookies in sacks in 2008, with five, along with 18 solo tackles, 5 assists, 4 forced fumbles and 1 recovery.  He did this despite starting only 4 games.  The fact of the matter is, the kid's a player.  Andre Fluellen, on the other hand, barely saw the field until the bitter end, but when he did I noticed something.  Andre Fluellen was bringing guys down in the secondary for eight yard gains.  He was forcing running backs out of bounds.  He was wrapping up wideouts on WR screens, after said WRs juked the corners.  He wasn't ever collapsing the pocket or throwing guys around, but Fluellen-at 296 pounds mind you--was frequently the second or third guy in on every tackle, everywhere on the field.  That speaks volumes about A) his level of effort, and B) his athleticism.  Five-O is a DE/DT, who hasn't seen the field much, but we've heard lots about him in practice.  There's no doubt that at 6'-5" and a lean 280, he passes the eyeball test.  Yet with moderate playing time--13 games, 2 starts--he only made a mild impact: 23 tackles and 1 sack.  That level of production would probably seem like "showing good flashes" for a rookie, but he's played two full seasons now and barely made a blip.  He was supposed to be a project from the get-go, but after two seasons you'd think we'd have a little bit more to go on.  Shaun Cody, the star of not-hit reality TV show "Super Agent", spent three whole seasons on the side of a milk carton only to suddenly make an impact in rotation: in 16 games and 4 starts, Cody racked up 25 solo tackles (for a DT!), 11 assists, and 3 passes defensed.  Those numbers approach his totals for his first three seasons combined.  Again, he certainly did not set the world on fire, especially for a second-round pick in his fourth year.  He should be a RFA this season--I'd think he'd be worth tendering an offer.  The rest of the lot (Darby, Langston Moore, Jared DeVries, Landon Cohen, Corey Smith, etc.)  are veteran backups with varying degrees of value, who may or may not have a place in the new regime.

    Next, the much-beleaguered linebacking corps: Ernie Sims, who was rated as the #1 recruit in America coming out of high school, has all the physical tools (eyeball test!) and mental tenacity to be an outstanding weakside linebacker.  But within this Lions defense, from his rookie year forward he has increasingly seen himself as a one-man team.  Especially in 2008, he was freelancing like crazy, and doing so increasingly to the detriment of both his production and the defense as a whole.  By the end of this year, I don't think Sims was playing for Marinelli or Barry, he was just going out there and flying by the seat of his pants.  That's a disastrous failure in the Tampa 2, which relies heavily on linebackers carrying out their assignments to a T--but with the right coach and system, Sims has the physical talent and mental tenacity be a Pro Bowler.  2008 second-rounder Jordon Dizon?  He's a total mystery.  Both Marinelli and Millen wanted Dizon, but it was obvious from the get-go that Millen thought he was drafting a Day One plug-in starter at MLB, and Marinelli thought he was getting a backup strong-side LB who could claim the starting SSLB job by the end of the season, and then be slowly tutored over the next offseason and regular season in the mysterious ninja art of the Tampa 2 Mike.  Millen forced Marinelli to put Dizon in at MLB, which he did, but only at third-string.  Dizon saw almost no reps in the middle once the bullets went live, and the instant Millen was broomed out the door, Dizon was the backup SSLB.  His body type and production scream strong-sider, but he might not have the speed to keep up with TEs and slot WRs in the Tampa 2 short zones.  Of course, if he's not playing in the Tampa 2 . . . he could concievably play Mike, his college position, in a straight 4-3, but he's quite undersized for that.  He might be best suited to play ILB in a 3-4.  Unfortunately, all the rest of these guys (starting Mike Paris Lenon, Alex Lewis, Ryan Nece, and Anthony Cannon) all fit the same mold: varyingly athletic, uniformly undersized (Lenon's the giant of the group at 235 lbs.), all veteran backups with varying degrees of value who may or may not have a place--as special teamers--in the new system.

    Now, the roundly lambasted defensive secondary: Leigh Bodden came to the Lions with much fanfare: the guy we got for departed he-beast Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers.  Bodden was sort of an odd fit; a talented cover corner with ball skills, but with the frame and attitude to hit people.  A traditional Tampa 2 corner needs only to blanket a reciever for 5-7 yards, and then be strong in run support; Bodden's best talents weren't of much use.  He struggled in the system early on, and many fans labelled him a bust.  But towards the end of the season it became obvious that Bodden was the best corner the Lions had had in a long time--you just couldn't see it due to the system he played in, and the fact that every other spot on the field was a soft spot for opposing offenses.  Why throw at Bodden when you can run for 5.1 yards a carry, or throw at a green backup like former Mr. Irrelevant Ramzee Robinson? Daniel Bullocks has shown good speed and awareness at the strong safety spot; he's also shown he both loves to hit people and is good at hitting.  Third on the team with 94 tackles in (64 solo), I think he's going to be a solid piece of the puzzle for years to come.   After being drafted in the second round in 2007, Gerald Alexander showed an impressive tool set, awareness, and the makings of an outstanding free safety (even while filling in at the strong side).  I don't know what happened in the offseason, but Alexander looked completely lost this preseason--he lost his starting gig to Dwight Smith and then went down for the year with an injury in Week 5.  Who knows which Gerald Alexander will report to 2009 camp?  Travis Fisher has, to me, always been a very good nickel back and an awful starting corner.  He's got great ball skills, but has neither the deep speed, nor size and strength, to consistently cover starting wideouts in the NFL.  You can see this in his career stats--his first two years, in the Rams' corner rotation, he had 14 passes defensed and six picks.  He's had 18 PD and 3 INT in the five years since, as he's repeatedly been pressed into starting duty.  I think he'll find a way to contribute in the next regime.  I'd do the "The Rest of These Guys" roundup . . . but between injury and attrition, that's just Keith Smith.

    So . . . now what?

    It's clear to me that the next coach must either be a defensive coach with a strong track record (e.g., Spagnuolo or Schwartz), or be an offensive coach who brings along a DC with excellent credentials.  Moreover, that coach needs to bring in a system that matches the talent.  It's easy to look at other Tampa Two disciples, but even though I don't think "the system" was the problem, I think the defensive players are going to more easily buy into a passionate coach with an aggressive scheme.  Look at what happened in Tampa: Tony Dungy walked softly but carried a big stick, preached discipline and coached his reactive zone defense for years and years--and when they brought in firebrand Jon Gruden, the whole team stepped it up to the next level.  I think that an aggressive, blitzing 4-3 would be the best fit for this talent.  With all the aggressive, undersized linebackers, and the defensive line that--poorly or not--was built to rush the passer without help from the rest of the defense, it seems like setting the front seven to attack, and allowing Leigh Bodden and the young safeties to hold down the back end, seems like it's going to be a lot more effective than setting the back seven to 'soft zone' mode and hoping that the medicore pass rush prevents Tarvaris Jackson from actually reminding people of Donovan McNabb.

    As a reminder, I'll be breaking down each of the rumored candidates--including deposed Jets HC Eric Mangini!-- in upcoming posts.  Thanks to all who've taken time to read so far!


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