My recent articles about Ndamukong Suh and the Lions' defensive line have kicked up a bit of a fuss about the roles of Suh, DT Corey Williams, and RFA target DT/DE Anthony Hargrove within the Lions' defense. This is my understanding of how all of these players can contribute to the Lions' defense, along with holdovers like Sammie Hill, Cliff Avril, and Jason Hunter.
This is the Lions' base defensive line alignment:
The numbers represent where the defensive linemen line up. You've heard me reference this before: the "one-technique" defensive tackle lines up between the left guard and center, the "three technique" on the outside shoulder of the right guard. In the Tampa 2, these tackles are called the "nose" and "under" tackles, respectively. Though I don't believe Schwartz and Cunningham use that nomenclature, I've labelled the 3-tech and 1-tech as "UT" and "NT" in this diagram for clarity.
In the Schwartz/Cunningham system, the ends line up very, very wide--beyond the outside shoulders of the tackles. This serves several purposes: first, it sets an outside edge in the run game. Runningbacks cannot simply bounce outside of the defensive ends to find daylight; they're hemmed in between their offensive tackles. Also, screens and tosses are much harder to execute. Finally, it forces the offensive line to spread out to protect against the outside speed rush, opening up interior gaps.
Schwartz mentioned before last season started that the defense uses "3-4 principles"; this is what he was talking about. The ends set a hard edge on the outside, funneling runs back to the interior. Unlike a 3-4 set, though, there isn't a two-gap tackle handling the interior--there are two one-gap tackles:
You see right away that all gaps aren't accounted for; that's okay. The ends funnel runs inside, and the tackles take up blockers. If everyone merely does their job, the result is something like this:
The ends are in position to hold the edges, the under tackle has locked up the right guard, and the nose tackle has commanded a double-team. Depending on whether one, two, or zero tight ends stay in to block, the defense has already ensured the runningback must stay inside. What happens once this impasse is reached?
Oh, right, linebackers. If the defensive line is doing its job, the linebackers should be able to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, this requires disciplined linebacker play. If the defensive line cannot stop the run by itself, the linebackers must be in position--or the tackle won't get made.
This is why the Lions need help at defensive tackle. If, in the above situation, the UT overwhelms the RG, then the play is disrupted--and there's no daylight outside. Further, if the NT can gain ground against the double-team, or split it, the play is again disrupted.
This is also why the Lions needed help at defensive end. If the DEs aren't strong enough to hold up at the point of attack, then all the interior disruption in the world won't stop the play. Many Lions fans will ruefully remember many times Shaun Rogers burst up the middle, only for the tailback or quarterback to sidestep him and have plenty of room to run.
Not only would excellent line play obviate the need for the linebackers to play cautious, stay-at-home football, it would keep blitzing lanes open, improving the blitz's effectiveness against both the run and pass.
Now, where to the Lions' defensive linemen fit into the picture?
- Sammie Hill is the 1-technique tackle, labelled as "NT" above. He's a big, beefy, 330-pound DT with some real athleticism. His rookie year, he was primarily a space eater. However, he flashed the potential to become dominant in that role; not just drawing double-teams--demanding them, and making plays anyway.
- Corey Williams was developing into a star in Green Bay as a 3-technique pass-rushing DT. Cleveland thought he'd make a perfect 3-4 end, and gave up a second-round pick to bring him in. Unfortunately, Williams just wasn't a fit for the scheme. He lacked the speed needed pressure the quarterback as an end, and his natural talent is penetration, not containment.
It's presumed that he'll return to the 3-tech role that suited him so well in Green Bay, and if the Lions make no additions to the line between now and the regular season, he'll be the starter. However, I could see his role changing on obvious passing downs. Hill is not a penetrator, so the 320-pound Williams could slide over to the 1-tech spot, providing a pass rush without sacrificing size . . .
- Kyle Vanden Bosch is the prototypical right defensive end for this defense: 270 pounds, very strong, very tough, difficult to keep off of the quarterback or runningback. His tenacity, leadership, and—we hope—production should make him the Lions’ best defensive lineman, even best defender, in 2010.
- Cliff Avril’s first two seasons with the Lions have been a tease. At times, he’s looked like an elite pass rusher in the making--and at times, he’s disappeared. At 260-to-265 pounds, he’s decidedly undersized as an LDE in this system. That might be why he closed the season behind 271-pound Jason Hunter on the depth chart . . .
Avril’s 2010 is going to be crucial to his development. He has to continue to develop his body to the point that he can drop anchor on the left edge—and he has to prove he can consistently pressure the quarterback.
- Jason Hunter is a developmental prospect, a hardworking special teams standout who was cut from Green Bay when they switched to a 3-4. Hunter’s got the perfect body type for this defense, but his play has been inconsistent as well. At times, he’s played the run well, and at times, he’s been easily blocked. He’s gotten a little bit of pressure on the quarterback, but he doesn’t have the physical pass-rushing gifts that Avril does.
In some ways, he’s the mirror image of Avril: an inconsistent natural run-stopper instead of inconsistent natural pass-rusher, both trying to become a 30-snap guy within this defense, each improving at the expense of the other.
- Kevin Carter is a guy who doesn't play for the Lions, but a player whose role in this defense the Lions would love to fill. As a Titan, the 305-pound Carter was an outsized pass rusher, a three-down force who would play primarily outside, but would slide inside on obvious passing downs to provide an extra push. It’s this role that would be filled by Saints RFA DL Anthony Hargrove, if he’s traded to the Lions.
Hargrove's signing would likely relegate Hunter to the bench and special teams (where he arguably belongs, for now), and Avril would continue to rotate in on second and third downs.
- Ndamukong Suh also doesn't play for the Lions, but as you all should know by now, I hope he will. I think he’s a once-in-five-years prospect as a pass-rushing tackle, a guy that could, in rotation with Corey Williams and Sammie Hill, seriously disrupt opposing offenses—against both the pass and the run.
Assuming the Lions do not get Anthony Hargrove, Suh would likely play as the “UT” next to Corey Williams’ “NT” on passing downs—and he could even do a little Kevin Carter on running downs as well. If the Lions got Hargrove, it wouldn’t necessarily mean the Lions couldn’t draft Suh and rotate him in, just that snaps would be lessened for all involved, and the DL depth would be much,um, deeper. Picture a nickel-defnese line of Avril, Hargrove, Suh, and Vanden Bosch, or a second-down line of Hargrove, Suh, Williams, and Vanden Bosch, or a first-down line of Hargrove, Willams, Hill, and Vanden Bosch . . .
Given the news, though, that the Hargrove has signed his tender and the Lions might try to trade out of the #2 pick, the Lions would prefer to trade for Hargrove, move down, and pick up a developmental tackle later. Who knows if they’ll be successful—for now, though, I don’t think Suh and Hargrove both come to Detroit.
Submitted for your approval: my projected defensive line depth charts with the "Hargrove/Suh" role combined (for now), and rotations/position battles notated, too:
Edited to add: Everyone’s been killing me for not including Turk McBride and/or Andre Fluellen, both of whom got a decent amount of snaps last year and are vaguely promising. I see McBride (and Andre Fluellen) as occupying the role that I noted here “Hargrove/Suh”. If either Hargove or Suh were a Lion next year, McBride and Fluellen would be battling for the role of “second-string DE/DT flex". Considering that there are first- and second-stringers at both DE and DT already, there aren’t a lot of leftover snaps. If both make the team, I think Hunter or Cohen are the casualty.
This is kind of the thing about the Lions getting better—they’re going to let good players go, because those good players aren’t good enough to be on the Lions. If you add in Vanden Bosch, Williams, and Suh, there are three fewer roster spots to go around for the Marinelli-style four-year projects and ‘tweeners.