Linebackers really do matter in the NFL. The Detroit Lions are still having some issues at the LB spots.
Linebackers are part of both the front seven and back seven of the defense. The position is a blend of the most challenging physical and mental aspects of the game. A defense without a good linebacker corp is like that guy at the gym that has clearly never bothered with leg day. He can mask it by wearing baggy pants, but the weakness is still there. The Detroit Lions masked their deficiencies at the linebacker spot by playing a lot of three safety looks. The league saw right through those baggy pants on numerous situations.
The Cornerstone For The Detroit Lions LB Corps
Jarrad Davis had the kind of season that you expect from a talented second-year player in the most demanding spot on the field and learning a new defense. If you scroll back to weeks two and three of the year and look at what people were writing about Davis, you’d think he was a talentless hack who just transitioned over from another sport. He struggled mightily early on. He was playing a type of defense he never has. Florida’s defense is a single gap scheme, as was Teryl Austin’s. Matt Patricia brought over a scheme that required a lot more observation and reaction vs. the run. Davis struggled.
It was clear that he was spending a great deal of time thinking. As the season went on, his processing speed greatly improved, and he was making plays we have not seen since a healthy DeAndre Levy was prowling Ford Field. Davis is not a pro bowl level player by any means, but those calling for his head on a platter early in the year have been served something much sweeter at dinner: their own words. Davis also showed a previously unseen aspect of his game on the blitz. His six sacks were third on the team.
Another Lions linebacker who improved as the season wore on was Christian Jones. He was brought in to be the veteran in the group. He had several years of experience in a two-gap system. Jones started his career in Chicago under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio who runs a 3-4 scheme. This is not the type of player that creates big plays on his own, however.
Until Snacks Harrison came on board and cleaned up the mess in the middle of the Lions defensive line, Jones was getting caught up in traffic in the running game. He was not playing much in the passing game early on. The team tried out other smaller players until they made it clear they were not up to the job. Jones provided stable run support and pass coverage that allowed Davis to stop worrying about what those around him were doing and do his own job. Basically, Jones was an insurance policy against other players getting hurt or not developing and he paid out.
So Much Promise
Jalen Reeves-Maybin was one of the most disappointing players on the Lions roster. On one hand, the role he was brought in to play left town with Teryl Austin. On the other, if he received a better run defense grade than pass defense grade from PFF. For a 230lb linebacker that cannot be the case. He was limited for most of the season by a neck injury that landed him on IR December 5th.
The scheme switch that the Lions underwent defensively may be a terminal problem for Reeves-Mayin. there have been smaller linebackers that have seen success under Patricia, but they have usually had relatively short tenures, as it is not what he wants. Reeves-Maybin still has a shot to make something of his career in Detroit, but will likely need to add weight. He was tied for the team’s lead in special teams tackles when he went on IR. If nothing else, he is an excellent kick and punt coverage asset for the team going forward.
The rest of the Lions linebackers are camp bodies that are on the roster due to the lack of meaningful depth. Pass rushers will receive their own treatment in a future post. All three of the players who matter for the Lions future at the position are under contract for the 2019 season.