During the coaching search, I took a hard look at the 2008 Lions, and found that what was supposed to be the strength of the team--the defense--was not only the weakness of the team, it was absolutely rotten. Miserable. Historically, epically, shockingly bad. Here's what I said at the time:
"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 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."
Thus, the news of the hiring of Jim Schwartz, a incredibly well-respected defensive coordinator, as the new Lions head coach was welcome news. The big question became, what would the new philosophy be? The new direction? What base alignment would the defense use? How much of the Millen/Marinelli defensive player would be kept? How much turnover would there have to be? How long was this going to take?
I thought that the hiring of the defensive coordinator would answer most, if not all, of those questions . . . instead, the news that it would be former Chiefs DC Gunther Cunningham answered none of those questions. Cunningham, in his first tour of duty as the Chiefs DC, had overseen one of the most agressive, effective, physical defenses in the history of the game. He was promoted to head coach--and for a variety of reasons, the defense became less effective. After being summarily replaced by Dick Vermeil, he landed as the linebackers coach in Tennessee, working under then-Titans DC Jim Schwartz. When KC's defense struggled under Vermeil's replacement Herman Edwards, the organization offered Gunther his old coordinator's job back, and he accepted. Though it was expected that Cunnignham would return with a dumpster full of his scrappy, hard-edged defensive knowhow, instead the defense barely changed. With very little talent on the field, and Edwards' Tampa 2 fingerprints evident on the defensive gameplans, it was assumed that Gunther had either lost his fire--or had no juice. As a result, the Kansas City defense was nearly as awful as the Lions' in 2008.
Since Cunningham had executed a Tampa 2 scheme in Kansas City, and the Lions' defense had been built to run Rod Marinelli's Tampa 2, would Gunther simply pick up where Marinelli left off? Would the Lions' hirings herald a return to "Guntherball", or merely represent an attempt to slowly build upon what little Marinelli had achieved? Cunningham, in his introductory press conference, immediately squashed all doubt:
"I've gone through three years of playing zone defenses because I was loyal to Herm Edwards, that's what he wanted. People here in town knew that I was different than that. My idea is to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, always has been, always will be. I think Jimmy knows that and I think he's a lot like that, although he was more zone conscious this year than he's ever been. But like I said at the beginning of this conversation I think the two of us will sit down and we'll decide what is the best thing that we can do and that's going to involve the organization's part of whatever Tom (Lewand) and Martin (Mayhew) decide on who we draft on defense and who else we get and how we do it. But my idea of coaching defense, it's explosive, it's aggressive, it's to go after people and make the players do things that they don't think they can do.” [emphasis mine]
I think that all sounded great to everyone at the time, but I'm not sure we really understood the fundamental shift in philosophy that was happening. Some speculated that a shift to the 3-4 was in the offing, some pointed to the relatively conventional (though excellent) 4-3 scheme that Schwartz employed at Tennessee, and both Schwartz and Cunningham repeatedly said that the alignment and scheme would be fitted to the personnel, and not the other way around.
We knew that the Lions would try and get bigger and tougher along the defensive front--Martin Mayhew said as much the day he and Tom Lewand assumed power. We see this in the signing of Grady Jackson, the drafting of Sammie Lee Hill (who I've decided to tag "The Candyman" due to the similarity of his name to Sammy Davis, Junior, his jovial nature, and his apparent love of food), and the courting of free agent SDE Kevin Carter. We also see this in the signing of edge-rushing OLB Julian Peterson, the drafting of downhill smash-up artist DeAndre Levy, and in Ernie Sims's recent WDFN interview where he talks about being freed up to blitz, to play instinctually, and to make plays. Further, we have Cunningham himself talking about the same thing: Ernie Sims' abilities being unlocked once freed from the shackles of the Tampa 2 system. This jibes exactly with what I speculated back in January:
"My personal theory is that Sims lost all respect for the defensive coaching staff and the system they taught. Whether he wasn't going full speed, or he was playing with total disregard for the system, Sims was definitely mentally checked out. I think a switch to a system where he gets to blitz, to attack, to run downhill and hit people will be MUCH more to his liking. Sims was named as one of the "three untouchable Lions" by NFL.com's Adam Schefter, and there's a good reason why. Sims' athletic ability is incredible, and when he's engaged he plays with tremendous fire and passion. In a traditional 4-3, where the WLB is asked to attack, attack, attack, I think Ernie Sims could be a tremendous force; a perennial Pro Bowl level defender."
I think the final piece of the puzzle comes in Jim Schwartz's recent 77-minute appearance on WRIF. No stenographer, or similarly gifted typist that I could find has gone through the hours of drudgery required to actually transcribe this thing, but there was an absolutely illuminating quote buried in the middle of this "interview":
"Here's what we do. We run a 4-3, but it's a little bit of a hybrid 4-3 in that there are some 3-4 principles. Meaning this: you're going to see the defensive ends lined up really wide, like a 3-4 outside linebacker. Their body shape is going to be really similar. You know, like a 255, 265-pound guy, not your typical 280-, 290-pound defensive end. They're going to set really really hard edges on the run, they're going to eliminate the boot, they're going to eliminate the stretch play, and we're going to funnel everything back down inside. So, it has some 3-4 principles in it, but we're going to be based out of a 4-3."
This is really interesting. This quote ends literally months of speculation as to the Lions' planned defensive scheme. He says they'll run a 4-3, but will feature smaller--as in Cliff Avril small--defensive ends lined up very wide. This explains the Lions' rumored heavy interest in 256# Connor Barwin, but doesn't quite jibe with the tire-kicking session they had with massive DE Kevin Carter. It also doesn't mesh with Martin Mayhew's contention that Cory Redding "would have played outside for us anyway"; even if Redding lost 10-20 pounds to get back to his college weight, he'd still be a "typical 280-, 290-pound defensive end".
My guess is that Schwartz is describing the "design goal", if you will, of the new Lions defense--what the defense should look like after three seasons of cutting out deadwood and acquring talent that fits. You'll have two two-gap DTs, two natural 330-pounders, clogging up the entire middle of the line. Outside of them, you'll have two DE/OLB 'tweeners, 265-pound pass rushers, lined up wide of either offensive tackle. The DEs' job on run downs will be to never let anyone with the ball get outside of them. They'll push ball carriers back inside, where the Williams Wall-esque tackle pair will eat them.
Behind that front, you'll have three big hitters, three downhill run-and-hit guys. On running downs, they will fly upfield and pop anybody who slips through the cracks up front--and on passing downs, they will fly upfield and try to bring down the quarterback. Obviously, some pass coverage by the OLBs will be happening too--but again, like a 3-4, opposing defenses will never know where the blitz is coming from.
I like this. I really do. The Lions already have the linebackers for this: Peterson, Sims, Foote, Levy, Dizon, et. al. should be able to execute this defense at a pretty high level right away--and are even in decent shape in three years, with Foote and possibly Peterson gone, and Sims, Levy, and Dizon fully matured. I like the safeties both now and for three years; Delmas and Bullocks can both cover and both hit. They should clean up any mess that's left past the front seven, and will also help bail out the corners.
The corners, however, are in very rough shape. Anthony Henry is dangerously close to being too slow to play corner in the NFL. Philip Buchanon is a reclamation project who most recently turned in a B+ performance from within the Tampa 2 system--which we all know far too well doesn't ask much of its corners. Buchanon has the natural talent to be an elite shutdown corner, but we haven't seen that Buchanon in years. Behind them are Tennessee depth guy Eric King--who Jeff Fisher says can probably "get the job done" as a starter--and nothing but scrubs like Keith Smith and Ramzee Robinson behind them. In today's NFL, you have to have three solid corners on defense--especially when your system is predicated on pass rush, and your pass rush blows. The Lions currently have three guys with (in my estimation) 65%, 60%, and 35% chances of playing like "solid corners" in 2009. The probability that all three will "hit" is low, so CB can be counted on to be a critical weak spot.
Then, of course, there is the small matter of the big guys up front. The Lions have no Williams wall, or even one Williams. They have a 36-year-old Williams-type currently going through intense personal pain, and just drafted a proto-Williams who is probably two years away from being ready for prime time. They also have Chuck Darby, who is not now and will never be a Williams, and Andre Fluellen, who has never been a Williams, but has the frame and athleticism to get there in another year or two. Darby and Jackson should be able to get away with being a pretty decent run-stopping tackle tandem for about 20 snaps a game, but after that the Lions are down to crossing their fingers and hoping that either Fluellen, Hill, or both miraculously step up.
So, where does this leave the Lions' defense? It's going to be better than last year; much better. Frankly, it has to be--the 2008 Lions' defense was just about as bad as an NFL defense can possibly be. Practically by definition, there has to be some improvement. On top of that, the new scheme, as I've pieced together above, should maximize what legitimate NFL talent the Lions have: the pass rushing skills of Cliff Avril, Dewayne White, and Julian Peterson; the hitting ability of Ernie Sims and Larry Foote; the (presumptive) playmaking ability of Louis Delmas. It should also hide some of the weaknesses: the heavy blitzing should take pressure off the corners, and the hard-hitting linebackers should help make up for some of the lack of talent up front. Combine all this together, and the Lions defense should be no worse than "signifcantly better but still bad", and--if everything goes perfectly and all the stars align and all the acquisitions work out--could be ranked as high as 10th in the NFL, in terms of scoring defense.
Either way, this defense promises to be entertaining. When it's successful, it will garner sacks, fumbles, picks--and big hits by the dozen. When it's unsucessful, it will still be blown off the ball, still be unable to stop the run, still be unable to get off the field, and still susceptible to the deep pass.