meet the cubs: deandre levy

>> 5.22.2009

As the Lions went on the clock to begin the 2009 draft, it was indisputable that the their most pressing need was middle linebacker.  Coming off a season where they allowed over 2700 yards rushing, the Lions had a former 6th-round pick (on his fourth roster in four years) atop the run-stuffer depth chart.  The starting-caliber free agents were long since signed, and the 2008 starter--the always-game but barely adequate Paris Lenon--had been allowed to test the free agent waters.  The Lions absolutely had to come out of the 2009 draft with a starting inside linebacker for now, and for the future.

Many observers had pegged the Lions as a possible landing point for Butkus award finalist Rey Maualuga, a 260-pound physical freak from USC, and a paragon of the firey run-stuffer archetype.  Big, fast, strong, and nasty, Rey-Rey seemed to be the perfect solution to the Lions' middle-linebacker problem. When the Lions went on the clock at 1.20, and Maualuga had yet to be picked, many Lions fans high-fived, clinked longnecks, and generallly celebrated the coming of the first defensive game-changer since Before Millen.

When TE Brandon Petitgrew's name was called instead, it was a bit of a shock.  When Maualuga fell all the way to the 2.1, Lions fans picked their cheering up where it had left off.  Surely, now, "Rey-Rey", the next Ray Lewis, was coming to Detroit.  Surely, a mid-first-round prospect, at the most pressing possible need, was a mortal lock to be taken with the Lions' second-round pick.  However, when the card was turned in, it bore the name of Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas.

Consternation amongst Lions fans reached red alert levels.  Was it possible that the Lions, desperately needing a linebacker with legitimate size and speed, passed on two different 260-pound linebackers with sub-4.6 speed three
 different times?  Knowing that the only other pure middle linebacker prospect good enough to step in and start, OSU's James Laurenitis, wouldn't last until the Lions' next pick at 3.1, the wailing, great lamentation, and gnashing of teeth began in earnest.

When the Lions turned in their next card, everyone was caught off guard when the name of Wisconsin OLB DeAndre Levy was called.  Levy played on the outside at Wisconsin, and even those Lions fans who knew of him knew of him only as the man who broke Joe Paterno's leg:

Wisconsin's official site has already been cleaned of his bio, but there's one pulled from the ESPNDB.  After an 84-tackle (21 TFL), five-sack senior season that saw him named to the first all-Wisconsin team, christened Levy a three-star recruit, the #7 overall recruit in Wisconsin, and the 78th-best linebacker recruit in the country.  As most standout Milwaulkeeans do, Levy stayed in-state--turning down Pitt and Indiana to become a Badger.

Levy was not redshirted; he even saw a little game action as a true freshman, racking up 18 tackles in 11 appearances.  He came into his sophomore year as the starter, and didn't disappoint.  He came in fourth on the team in tackles with 50 (7.5 TFL), and six sacks.  He also came up huge in the Badgers' Capital One Bowl victory over Arkansas; he snagged an interception, and had three tackles. As a junior, he took another leap forward.  He wrapped up 70 tackles. 10 of which went for losses.  He was also named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his incredible performance against Indiana: eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.  Finally, in his senior year, he came in second on the team in tackles with a career-high 73.  His 9.5 TFLs led the team, and his 6.0 sacks tied for the team lead.  For this, the 6'-2", 236-pound Levy was named honorable mention all-Big Ten.

So, why did the Lions draft him?  Already well set at both outside linebacker positions, and completely bereft of talent in the middle, this looked like an awful selection.  Quick Googling revealed Levy's tendencies: an extremely quick and fast backer with NFL size, at his best when running downhill and laying big hits on people; at his worst in coverage.  His natural skill set didn't make him much of an NFL strong-side linebacker.

However, word quickly got out that the Lions had no intention of using him as a strong-side linebacker.  To Lions' fans' continuing chagrin, the Lions had passed up on several pure inside 'backers--then drafted a SAM with the intention of converting him to a MIKE.  Isn't this the folly that the Lions have indulged in time and time again?  From Barrett Green to Teddy Lehman to Jordon Dizon, the Lions have frequently tried converting natural college strong-siders into pro MLBs.  Usually the result has been a fiesty-but-hopelessly-overmatched 220-pound MLB trying to bring down running backs no smaller than he is.  However, Levy is no 220-pounder.  While he lacks the bestial 250-plus-pound frame Lions fans were hoping to see, he has a couple inches and about 20 pounds on the Lehmans and Dizons of the world.

So, we know what the Lions fans were hoping for, but what were the Lions' coaches and front office looking for?  Jim Schwartz, at USC's Pro Day:

"We're going to need a big thumper," Schwartz admitted Sunday after practice. "I mean, a strong thumper in the middle for base defense. I don't want to put height and weights (on it) but a big, strong, physical player that can play between the tackles, that can take on offensive guards.  . . . we've dealt with a lot of those situations before (at Tennessee).  I think No. 1 on his job description has got to be (as a) heavy-handed, inside run defender that can take on guards, that can fill fullbacks (and) that can bring that kind of run-stopping attitude to the defense."

After the draft, he was asked to give his thoughts on Levy as that "thumper":

Physically, he fits there.  Again, I want to caution that until we get mouthpieces and shoulder pads and those kinds of things and you're taking on fullbacks live, you have a hard time completing that evaluation. But drill work and athletically, hitting the sleds and those kinds of things, he looks like he's right at home there.  When he strikes you, he knocks people back.  You don't really worry about the weight there as much as the impact that he does when he hits. You want guys who can build explosion through speed and he has that 4.4, 4.5 type speed and he's able to create some collisions."

Indeed.  To that most exaustive, complete, and impartial scouting resource: the internet highlight reel!

As always, there are some very encouraging things on these clips (click for a longer, non-embeddable video).  There is, as Coach Schwartz said, a snap-back to his hits; his initial pop is great.  I also love his relentless pursuit of all ball carriers; he absolutely never gives up on a play.  Whether or not he makes the initial hit, he seems to have a knack for ending up helping in the takedown.  This leads me to what doesn't
 excite me: the occasionally-poor angles he takes exacerbate his lack of overpowering size and strength.  If he initially tries to fill the wrong lane, or overpursues, his speed gets him back to the ballcarrier-- but he can't take him down without help.  For what it's worth, Levy came into Wisconsin weighing 212 pounds; according to him he's already up to 238 and wants to go into training camp at 240.  240 pounds is definitely big enough to play in the middle; he'll have about an inch and five pounds over outgoing starter Paris Lenon--and while Lenon is quick, he is not 4.56 quick, as Levy is.  Schwartz says that he builds force through speed--and while physics says that's possible, all that momentum has to hit square, the first time.  It will be Levy and Cunningham's job to make sure he pulls that off, down after down.

As it turns out, the wailing and lamentation were all for naught--not only does Levy possess in great quantities the qualities that Cunningham and Schwartz are looking for in their linebackers, but the Lions went and signed former Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote.  Foote, a stalwart of two Pittsburgh championship teams, is a legit NFL middle linebacker.  His forte is two-down run stuffing, and he'll provide an instant--and dramatic--upgrade over anyone else on the roster.  His downhill, attacking style--combined with his veteran savvy, effusive love of his native Detroit, and extremely
 vocal leadership in the huddle is exactly what the Lions wanted and needed.  For one year--by Foote's request, the length of his deal--DeAndre Levy will get to see exactly what the Lions need him to be for 2010 and beyond.   Oh, and Foote's size?  6'-1", 240 pounds.


going meta

>> 5.21.2009

I don't often talk about this blog, in this blog.  At least, not beyond restating and reinforcing the purpose and driving force behind the many thousands of words I've burned over the past few months: to revive the spirit of fandom in the Lions faithful.  To remind everyone that rooting for our team is supposed to bring us pride and joy, not just a cue to "boo".  To build and tend a little blue fire, where real Lions fans can gather--even as the searing cold wind of 0-16 swirls around us--and feel warmth on our face, and smile.

Well, I hope the crowd around the fire's about to get a little bit bigger.  I'm happy to announce that I'm writing for's new BlueBlog, a news blog that's tied in to Scout's Roar Report website and Lions Den forum.  The focus of the BlueBlog is the polar opposite of this one; it's a group-written (as of now, five contributors) news blog that aims to gather all the most interesting Lions news into one space, with a dollop of analysis on the side.  Here are the answers to your immediate questions:

1) The Lions in Winter will continue on, exactly as it is: thorough analysis and passionate thoughts, voiced solely by me; thought-provoking discussion between everyone who gathers here.  There should be no dropoff in quality or quantity in this space.

2) You won't see my content from the BlueBlog syndiated here, and I won't be pimping my posts here over there.  There may be a feedburned sidebar or something somewhere on this site, just to provide you folks  the constant stream of quick-hit news that I've never been able to provide.

3) TLIW is not now a Scout-affiliated site, or anything like that.  My words here are unsponsored (except by you!), uncensored, unofficial, and free--and always will be.

The BlueBlog is in the middle of a "soft launch", which basically means it's still in the process of getting off the ground.  There've been regular contributions going up for almost a week, the authors are still getting used to each other's writing styles and rhythms, we just started telling Scout subscribers about it today, and the "real" (a.k.a, attractive and professional) site template isn't quite ready for prime time yet.  Still, there's plenty of stories up there already; I hope you all will find it a useful first-stop resource for Lions information.


the tipping point

>> 5.19.2009

On's excellent Page 2, their columnist Bill Simmons (under the singularly unimaginative moniker "The Sports Guy") conducted a wonderful interview with pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell has penned several recent bestsellers, including Blink and The Tipping Point.  Gladwell talked quite a bit about basketball and the full-court press--specifically, how underdogs in basketball routinely defeat themselves by conceding half of the court to the superior team.  He then drew a corrollary to football:

"Right now, great teams (such as the Colts and Patriots) use the no-huddle selectively, as a way to maximize their dominance. But why don't bad teams use it? If you were the Lions, why not run the no-huddle this season? Why not put together a lighter, better-conditioned offensive line and a radically simplified playbook and see what happens? It's not as if you are risking a Super Bowl if it backfires. Your offensive line is lousy anyway, so there's no harm in tearing it down, and your fans aren't going to turn on you if you get killed while you work out the kinks. Last I checked, your fans have already turned on you. On the plus side, maybe the no-huddle exhausts the other team's defense so much you slow down their pass rush in the second half. And maybe giving your quarterback a bit more autonomy helps develop his knowledge of the game, and his leadership skills."

This is a very interesting point.  The no-huddle does give a decided tactical advantage to the offense; if they can keep the chains moving without allowing defensive substitutions, very quickly the defense will tire out.  Many reading this blog will remember Jim Kelly running the Buffalo Bills' lethal "K-Gun" no-huddle shotgun-based offense.  The Bills used this offensive attack--and of course, a couple of defensive Hall of Famers--to reach four straight Super Bowls.  Stretching defenses with speedy wideouts like Andre Reed, Don Beebe, and Steve Tasker--then preventing them from substituting--opened up huge holes for multidimensional RB Thurman Thomas.  

Fifteen years after this offense shredded AFC defenses, a 2010 version might be even more terrifying.  While defensive rotations were just coming into vogue back then, today nearly every spot on the defensive side of the ball is highly specialized.  Defensive linemen, in particular, typically roll seven or eight deep on many teams, based highly upon down-and-distance.  On passing downs, bigger DEs will move inside while specialized pass rushers come off the bench--or outside linebackers put a hand down.  Teams play nickel or dime defenses nearly as many snaps as they play their base defenses.  The Patriots-style 3-4/4-3 flex is starting to spread throughout the league--and several teams (Chiefs, Packers, Broncos) are in transition from one alignment to the other.  A no-huddle offense would "trap" these teams in one alignment and personnel package, and force them to stick with it, greatly reducing the defenses' ability to adjust and react.  Trapped in the same alignment and personnel package, while the offense flashes different looks and motions, a defense could be paralyzed for entire series.

So, why don't the Lions try this?  Moreover, why didn't they try this in 2008, while they were staring an 0-16 season in the face?  Oh, wait--they did.  Jim Colletto on incorporating the no-huddle:

"It stinks. It was awful, it was embarrassing - to me and to all of us. And let's leave it at that. It was awful. If I was in the stands, I would've booed, too."

It turns out that the reason that teams like the Colts and Patriots use the no-huddle situationally to maximize their dominance is that they have coaches and players capable of executing it well; the 2008 Lions did not.  If the 2009 Lions were to actually do what Gladwell suggests--say, start Matt Stafford off with a 10-play playbook and work on nothing but execution and conditioning all training camp long--then yes, they might win several more games than if they play strictly conventionally.  The problem is that until they can win by playing conventionally, they'll be nothing more than a gimmick team, and never in serious contention.

In his New Yorker article, Gladwell looks at the dream season of a 12-year-old girls' basketball team from the Silicon Valley.  Despite being almost devoid of talent (and being coached by a software developer from Mumbai, with no background in basketball whatsoever), they advanced to the third round of the national championships--all thanks to a relentless full-court press.  Gladwell then spins that around on the rest of the basketball world--why don't more teams press, especially underdogs?  When you are the sixteen seed going up against a UNC or a Duke, why engage them in halfcourt play?  Why attempt to beat them at their own game?  Why walk up to the executioner's platform and place your neck on the chopping block?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that basketball is a game much more susceptible to streaks, bad breaks, off nights, and David-versus-Goliath upsets to begin with.  This is one of the reasons why basketball seasons involve so many games; it takes a monumental talent and execution advantage to consistently avoid upsets.  One superlative player getting hot--such as Davidson's Stephen Curry--can singlehandedly lift a nobody over powerhouses.  On any given night, whether 'the shots are falling' or not can profoundly influence the style, tempo, confidence, and aggressiveness of any team.  In fact, much of the success of the Redwood City girls' basketball squad was based on confounding and flustering their superior opponents, knocking them off their rhythyms and forcing them to take increasingly riskier shots.  The question is, once David's slayed Goliath once, how does (s)he do it again?

In football, there are 4 preseason games, 16 regular season games, and 4 rounds of playoffs that stretch from August to Februrary.  In between each game is no fewer than four--and as many as 14-- days for a staff of 20-50 coaches, assistants, and interns working 80-hour weeks, poring over game tape, relentlessly strategizing, devising gameplans, preparing them for the players, teaching them to the players, and practicing them with the players.  Over the course of a season, a team or formation or strategy that catches everyone off guard in Week 1 is often nearly useless come the playoffs.  We saw this illustrated dramatically with the 2007 Patriots--their unexpected vertical air attack, enabled by the acquisition of Randy Moss, led them to score points at almost unprecendented rates, without losing anything off of their outstanding defense.  They were beating all opponents by unheard-of margins, and the whispers of a possible perfect season soon began.  Of course, the Patriots did complete their perfect regular season--but by the end of it, their unstoppable air attack had been contained.  Instead of blowing opponents away with Randy Moss, they were ankle-biting with Wes Welker.  They were winning, but no longer unstoppable.  As we know, the Giants ultimately solved the Patriots in the Super Bowl.  Using a relentless pass rush to disrupt the passing game, they exposed the Patriots' inability to control the ball by running.  The lesson here is that in the NFL, nothing works very well for very long--too many people have too many millions of dollars riding on the outcomes of these games for any one unusual strategy or formation to be consistently dominant.

I think a wonderful test of this whole underdog-getting-crafty-in-the-NFL business is going to be the Dolphins' "Wildcat" formation.  The 2007 Dolphins, coming off of an atrocious season where they barely avoided going 0fer themselves, tried something new.  Looking for a way to maximize their talent, they used a formation where RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams could be on the field at the same time.  Sometimes using this formation as the primary offense for a whole game, and sometimes using it for only a play or two, it was wildly successful--and a big part of why the Dolphins went from 1-15 into 11-5 in just one season.  After drafting multidimensional QB/RB/WR Pat White in the second round of the 2009 draft--but with 2008 second-round pocket passer Chad Henne waiting in the wings--it remains to be seen exactly how big of a role in the Dolphins' future the Wildcat formation will play . . . and how successful it is.


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