The Lions' Defensive Line, As I Understand It

>> 4.04.2010

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:

diagram-based.png

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:

diagram-based2.png

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:

diagram-based3.png

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?

diagram-based4.png

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:

diagram-based-base diagram-based-run diagram-based-pass

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.


27 comments:

Neil April 5, 2010 at 1:35 PM  

Well done as usual, my friend.

The most exciting thing about all of this is that we can actually reasonably discuss different options along the line because it seems there will be actual depth. It's a far cry from this time last year when we were both declaring the DL a complete disaster area. If we went back and looked at our stuff from back then, I think we would be amazed by how far this unit has come.

Anonymous,  April 5, 2010 at 2:03 PM  

Nice work Ty. Do you have something like this up your sleeve for the Offensive Line, following the trade for Rob Sims?

TimT April 5, 2010 at 3:08 PM  

Good job, Ty.

Our 4-3 alignment is typically in an "over" front, thus we don't here the guys referring to the DT as an "Undertackle" as it is called in the T2. It's base alignment is the 4-3 "under", where the 3-technique lines up on the weak side.

I don't see McBride listed on here. He is the Lions current version of Hargrove. I personally believe, if nothing else changes, he's our starting LDE in September. Hunter could challenge him for that, but I don't believe Hunter provides that inside/outside ability that McBride and Hargrove do. Of course, the hinges on McBrides ability to bulk back up after having been anemic in KC trying to get to OLB weight.

Ty April 5, 2010 at 3:39 PM  

So, you're saying the 3-tech typically lines up against the strongside guard? I'll double-check that, and correct as necessary.

Yeah, I thought about McBride extensively, but I just don't see where he fits if either Hargrove or Suh is brought in. Between KVB, Avril, and Hunter at end, and Hill, Williams, and Cohen at tackle, you add either Hargrove or Suh and you're at 7 DL. Even if Andre Fluellen (another inside/outside guy), Joe Cohen, Bryan Copeland, and Terrance Taylor all get cut, McBride would make 8 DL on the active roster, and he'd be solidly behind Hargrove/Suh in his specialty role.

Not saying it won't happen--but I only see McBride starting at LDE if they whiff on Hargrove, trade down from #2, AND trade Avril. Even then, McBride will have to beat out Hunter . . . no, I think McBride could sneak on to the roster, but won't see heavy rotation this year.

Peace
Ty

TimT April 5, 2010 at 3:53 PM  

Your alignment and personnel on paper is correct, assuming the TE is on the offensive right side (as is normal). All of your illustrations are spot on (according to my feeble mind).

Simply remove the offensive LTE for argument sake.

In the T2, shift the NT over to the other side of center. Move the 3 to the defensive right side. Now, the strength of the D is on the weak side of the offensive formation. "4-3 under".

Ty April 5, 2010 at 4:01 PM  

TimT--

Okay, sweet. I've reviewed ~50% of the 2009 defensive snaps, and I based this off of what I saw on film. I was about to be very embarassed if I had everything flip-flopped!

Peace
Ty

TimT April 5, 2010 at 4:07 PM  

As for McBride, Hargrove and Suh...


Who's your starting LDE? Right now it's McBride. At one point last year, Gun commented on McBride saying "that's first time we've gotten push in the middle all year". He had McBride in that exact Hargove role in KC. He came out of Tennessee having played DT and DE. He was anemic due to KC last year. It's obvious we can use an upgrade on the left, but I'd still suggest McBride is the 2nd LDE.

Corey Williams does not have a reliable backup at the 3-tech. This is presumably where a Suh would be plugged in, however, if Detroit were going to pay him a ton, they'd play him on the LDE spot, too. Think KC again. Cunningham said about Glenn Dorsey "we're not going to just line him up in 1 spot, we're going to play him all over the field." (I'm paraphrasing) It's the only conceivable way you get value out of that pick is to see him rushing the passer.

Assuming we landed all of the defensive hopefuls, the roster would be like this:

LDE Hargrove, McBride
LDT Williams, Suh
RDT Hill, Joe Cohen
RDE KVB, Avril

Ninth D-Line player is Hunter. That group of linemen could line up virtually anywhere.

Now that you're thinking that way, let me give you a depressing thought. Imagine getting neither Suh nor Hargrove.

Anonymous,  April 5, 2010 at 5:13 PM  

Ty,

Very illuminating indeed! The thought of Suh playing on the edges in blitz situations is scary.

Mike

Anonymous,  April 5, 2010 at 9:51 PM  

This has me thinking with the Saints saying Hargroves not going anywhere. It seems that it will deffinately be Suh, all the pieces fit. I'am also looking forward to the offensive breakdown
Thanks Mike

LionsFanRoc,  April 5, 2010 at 10:18 PM  

There will have to be significant cuts on the defensive line considering that currently the Lions have 9+ LB's and a stable full of DB's on the roster... If nothing else there is going to be some serrrrious competition for spots on this team during camp.

Freebird2010,  April 6, 2010 at 12:10 PM  

Well done. I still think with added weight this season (he lined up at DT sometimes at 255 lbs and didn't do that badly!), McBride not only makes the team, but sees significant playing time at DE.

Anonymous,  April 6, 2010 at 12:57 PM  

This is my first time on this blog, and I'm grateful for the in-depth info. It almost seems as if Suh would be an extravagance- Albeit, a greatly talented one.

The post that brought up Turk McBride illustrates the point that the addition of Suh would give the Lions one of the most talented DT rotations in the league.

This leads to a question of front-office philosophy: Is the focus more on stockpiling the most talented players, regardless of position, or will there be a slight sacrifice of talent level in order to fill holes in the roster?

Anonymous,  April 6, 2010 at 1:14 PM  

This is nice.

Here's a couple thoughts:

1) The fact that the DTs rotate on and off the field, is a reason for not drafting a DT at number 2 overall. Value is not there if Ndamukong Suh does not play every down.

2) Ndamukong Suh (and McCoy) both ran 4.9 in the 40. This is pretty good for guys around 300lbs, but this is still slow by comparison to the elite 300lb DTs in the game such as: Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, Tommie Harris, and Jay Ratliff.

Interestingly, the closest comparison to Suh is Jay Ratliff who like Suh is 6-4 and weighs roughly 305lbs. Ratliff plays NT for Dallas, so it would seem that Suh could probably play either DT position, but I don't think Suh is fast enough to be anything more than an average rusher from the DE position. Maybe I'm wrong.

Ratliff runs a 4.8 - 40.

Anonymous,  April 6, 2010 at 2:01 PM  

Ty and TimT
Suh could play DE and DT in our D...
KVB will be lined up outside the RT, not the LT.
Depth is important to wear down the oline over the course of a game..

Now think about Gunthers 3-3-5
Hill-Williams-Suh
OLB/KVB-ILB/Jpete-OLB/Avril
DB/houston,?,king,wesley(joker role)
S-Delmas(rove&rob)

send five and drop 6

Anonymous,  April 6, 2010 at 3:33 PM  

I wouldnt be willing to pay $60 million for Suh if he is drafted for "just passing downs". Sorry!

Anonymous,  April 6, 2010 at 4:13 PM  

You only used a double tight formation. IF you used a single TE set the under/over is easier. In an over front the 3 tech will line up on the guard on the strong side(same side as the TE). an under front will have the 1 tech lined up on the strong side. And the players line-up in gaps. 1 tech is the gap between the center and guard. 3 tech is the gap between guard and tackle. if a DT is lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard he is considered a 2i technique. the "i" referring to the guard's eye. So the gaps are 1, 3, 5,7. A 5 tech is not head up on the tackle as you have it. the techniques that are lined up head-up are: 0, 2, 4, 6

Anonymous,  April 6, 2010 at 4:52 PM  

I agree with some of the comments about Turk McBride. I thought at times he played very well, and he's still a young and developing 2nd round talent. I think he'll be a very good backup on both DE sides, and may evolve into a 2 down starter at LDE, with Avril coming in on obvious passing downs.

Ty April 6, 2010 at 5:07 PM  

Neil--

THanks for the kudos! And yeah, isn't it so odd to be talking about "options" and "depth", having more than one decent player at a given position? It's strange and disorienting.

Peace
Ty

Ty April 6, 2010 at 5:09 PM  

columbo, Anon 1--

Thanks for the props! And yes, I'm working on a doozy of a thing for Sims.

Peace
Ty

Ty April 6, 2010 at 5:10 PM  

TimT, others--

I edited the post 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."

Peace
Ty

Ty April 6, 2010 at 5:13 PM  

Mike--

Yeah, with Hargrove looking like an impossiblity, I think Suh is the choice if the Lions stand pat. Still, I think they'd move down if they had any way at all to do it.

Peace
Ty

Ty April 6, 2010 at 5:19 PM  

LionsFanRoc--

Exactly. At some point, some of these promising/project/depth guys the Lions picked up off the street will have to go back out on the street because the Lions have TOO MANY GOOD PLAYERS. Wow!

Peace
Ty

Ty April 6, 2010 at 5:23 PM  

Anon 2--

Thanks for dropping by; glad you like!

The best way to describe what the Lions are doing is "BATFAN", a term coined by Josh over at roarofthelions.com:

Best
Available
That
Fits
A
Need

Do the Lions need a franchise quarterback? No. Do the Lions need a megastud WR? No. Do the Lions need damn near anything else? Yes, so don't rule out anything else with that top pick; the Lions will take the best available player at that spot that is NOT a QB or WR.

Repeat that strategy in round 2, 3, 4, etc.

Peace
Ty

Daniel,  April 6, 2010 at 10:46 PM  

wow i really enjoyed this , thanks for this insight, i agree with alot of it and have also wondered the same things for a while with having suh as an opposite end pass rush from vandenbosch on short running plays with williams and hill in the middle,
aAso some games wherethe lions had to make a stop on a 4th and short they came out with a 5-3 defense.
They had 3 DT 2 ends and 3 linebackers. try watching the redskins opening drive i believe where Grady Jackson takes out the whole right side by taking the center out himself. What kind of mixture of players do you see in that formation.
Id say d-line Vandenbosch-Williams-Hill-L. Cohen-Suh
What do you think?

Ty April 30, 2010 at 2:39 PM  

Anon--

"You only used a double tight formation. IF you used a single TE set the under/over is easier. In an over front the 3 tech will line up on the guard on the strong side(same side as the TE). an under front will have the 1 tech lined up on the strong side. And the players line-up in gaps. 1 tech is the gap between the center and guard. 3 tech is the gap between guard and tackle. if a DT is lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard he is considered a 2i technique. the "i" referring to the guard's eye. So the gaps are 1, 3, 5,7. A 5 tech is not head up on the tackle as you have it. the techniques that are lined up head-up are: 0, 2, 4, 6"

Oh.

Crap.

Thank you for pointing that out! I'll have to edit it.

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