Defining The Undefinable: The New Detroit Lions Defense


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The origins of the new scheme, and how the Detroit Lions defense might look different in 2018.

There is a lot of talk about how defensive schemes don’t matter anymore. The 4-3-4 and the 3-4-4 are slowly giving way to the 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 fronts that make up a nickel defense. You will hear 20-30 times per game from the third and fourth tier network announcing crews that the NFL is a passing game. That is largely true. However, it also needs to be mentioned that the four teams that made it to the divisional championship round were all among the best teams in the NFL at running the football. If you are looking for the number one reason that the Lions are awaiting the official announcement of a new head coach, look no further than that. The Lions were terrible running the ball.

This brings to the forefront the question of how to beat the good teams. The Lions could not run the ball, and they were below average stopping the run. The Lions were number 18 in the NFL in rushing yardage allowed. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not good. This is where the majority of the Lions team stats sit. This is why they beat bad teams and lost to good teams. With the proliferation of the nickel defense, it is not on passing downs where Lions fans are going to notice a large difference in the upcoming season. The run defense is going to look completely different, however.

Defenses fall into two categories in terms of run defense. One gap defense and two gap defense based systems. Most defenses in the NFL utilize both of these styles at times, but each tends to lean heavily in one direction or the other. The Detroit Lions defense will be switching which of these two methodologies they are using for the 2018 season.

How The Lions Used To Defend The Run

Teryl Austin’s defense was an innovative alteration of the Phillips 3-4 defense. This defense is a one-gap version of the 3-4 defense. The defense was pioneered by Bum Phillips in the 70s and is currently utilized by his son Wade to great effect with the Rams. It was utilized by Rex Ryan in Baltimore, New York, and Buffalo. Austin’s altered the scheme to fit the 2014 Lions roster. The trademarks of this defense are an insane number of stunts, loops, and mid-play gap responsibility changes. It favors lighter and quicker linemen than a standard 3-4 defense which made it a very good fit for players like Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C. J. Mosley, Jason Jones, and Ezekiel Ansah.

The alteration Austin made to turn the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 was to switch the gap responsibility of the nose tackle and mike linebacker; and that of the strong side defensive end and strongside linebacker. They dropped the strongside linebacker to a position five yards off the ball the majority of the time. Other than that the defense being run, in terms of the front seven for purposes of defending the run was the Phillips 3-4 defense. The goal of the Phillips 3-4 defense is to penetrate into the backfield. They want to disrupt the blocking scheme of the offense.

How The Lions Will Defend The Run Now

The Patriots defensive system, and therefore the new Detroit Lions defense, is based on a different style of 3-4 defense, the Fairbanks-Bullough scheme. This defense originates in the 1940’s college football. It was brought to the NFL in the 70’s by New England Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks. Patriots defensive coordinator Hank Bullough made more innovations to the scheme. This is where Bill Parcells, then a linebacker coach for the team, picked it up. Bill Belichick learned the system in Denver, it was brought over by Red Miller, a former Patriots offensive coordinator who got the Broncos head coaching gig. Belichick joined Parcells staff with the Giants, eventually became the defensive coordinator. As the Patriots head coach he has utilized the basic defensive strategy, but further developed it. This is the system that soon to be Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia rose through the ranks under.

Patricia’s version of the defense utilizes aspects of almost every defensive scheme under the sun. At its core, however, is the Fairbanks-Bullough style of run defense. Where the defense differs is that it is able to use bigger and slower players along the defensive line. Rather than breaking through the wall created by the offensive line, the Lions defense will now create a wall that the offense needs to break through. Defensive linemen used to shoot a single gap. The interior defensive linemen will now be playing a two-gap responsibility. That involves standing up the offensive lineman and pushing them back or at least holding a spot to clog up space.

Whether there are four linemen or three in Patricia’s defense depends largely on the blocking scheme utilized by the offense he faces as well as the down and distance. It also depends and his available personnel, and the personnel available to his opponent. If it is advantageous to have a fourth lineman he does so, if not he does not. The fundamental ideals of the scheme however do not change all that much in their run defense.

How That Is Going To Look Different On Sundays

The new Detroit Lions defense tends to create fewer plays for a loss without blitzes. It also doesn’t leave the running back an open lane into the secondary if a single player in the front seven loses their gap integrity. The defensive line covers all interior gaps. The inside linebackers create a second level of run defense rather than participating in the first. They are effectively policing any holes that appear and taking on any linemen that come to the second level. The linebackers in the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 are free to flow from sideline to sideline, and less likely to be caught up in traffic that prevents them from getting to outside runs.

The defensive linemen who thrive in this style of defense are big, strong, and smart players rather than quick and twitchy athletes. Obviously, big, strong, smart, quick, twitchy athletes are ideal in any scheme. A’Shawn Robinson, for example, played in this style of defense at Alabama and thrived in it. The Lions have been missing a gap shooting three-technique. That type of player is not a key component of the Fairbanks-Bullough concept on running downs. If a defensive tackle is able to push an offensive lineman into the backfield, that is more advantageous than simply shooting past him and losing control of one of the lineman’s gaps.

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So Is This A Good Thing for the Detroit Lions Defense?

In the end, Lions fans just want effective run defense, and both styles have their merits. By its nature, the Phillips defense is more aggressive than the Fairbanks-Bullough system. When Phillips works it looks great, but the defense is always one mistake from giving up a big play. The Fairbanks-Bullough scheme minimizes the impact of minor mistakes. The Lions new scheme is more forgiving to young linebackers. In that, it is likely a better fit for the Lions roster right now. Jarrad Davis and Jalen Reeves Maybin both tended to get caught in traffic by hugging the line of scrimmage. They found themselves trapped, with line battles on all sides and unable to follow running backs who made cutbacks or kicked outside. This was often the downfall of the Detroit Lions defense in 2017.

I focused on the run defense because the pass defense does not really change much. The Linemen’s first step is to a man rather than a gap. They are then often more free to pick the side to which they are rushing once they have determined that the other team is passing. The ability to engage rather than just run around blockers is still a good thing. It is just far less mandatory for of pass rushers. Kris Kocurek was likely allowed to leave because of this change in tactics. He still had a contract with the Lions. He could have stayed. Instead, Kocurek will reunite with Ndamukong Suh in Miami with the Dolphins.

As I said, all NFL defenses use both of these concepts to one degree or another. Matt Patricia’s defense flips back and forth more than most. All defenses are better at one than the other, and the Detroit Lions defense are likely to be better at two gap defense than one gap shortly.

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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He enjoys maple syrup and tacos, but never at the same time.