The Detroit Lions are building their defense of the future, and the future is bright.
Many fans seemed confused when the Detroit Lions selected Jahlani Tavai in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft this April. Many draft experts did not have him projected to be drafted until a full round, or in some cases a full day, later than he was selected. However, Tavai is exactly the ideal fit for the ideal future NFL defense that Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn are building in Detroit.
Exploring the Dime Package
While there’s a general theory that the future NFL defense is going to be faster and lean more towards secondary players being on the field more frequently and at a higher volume, the Lions are working on another unit that needs help and will play a key role- the linebackers. The Lions utilized a lot more dime sets than the average NFL team last year, and this appears to be a major trend that we can expect to continue. The team was lined up in a dime formation on 26% of their defensive snaps last season, or more than a quarter of the time per Football Outsiders. This would have them end up tied for the sixth highest amount in the league last season. The dime package is definitely not going away from the Lions playbook. If anything, the addition of Tavai this off-season will allow them more flexibility to properly use a greater variety of dime looks.
As the Los Angeles Chargers showed last season, the dime package should expect to play a key role in a future NFL defense that most teams will look to utilize. However, there are many versions of the dime defense. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a dime defense is a defensive alignment where there are six or more defensive backs on the field. The purpose of this is to add speed to cover an increasing amount of receiving threats on the field including receiving backs and receiving tight ends. Unlike a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, a dime defense doesn’t have a set amount of defensive lineman or linebackers on a given play. Last season, the Lions took the 3rd fewest base 4-3 or 3-4 snaps on defense according to Football Outsiders. Similarly to a nickel defense, where there are several different types of nickel packages, there are also several different types of dime. There’s a 1-3-7, 2-2-7, 2-3-6, 3-2-6 and 3-1-7 at the current time, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if we see 5-0-6 and/or 0-4-7 sets in the distant future if talent allows.
So where does Jahlani Tavai fit into this vision that revolves around taking heavier players off the field for defensive backs?
Versatility is Key in a Future NFL Defense
One reason why the Lions targeted Tavai and, looking further back, Jarrad Davis, was their versatility. Both Tavai and Davis are able to play all four linebacker positions- SAM, JACK, MIKE and WILL. Add in Christian Jones who also took some snaps at JACK on the first day of camp, and Devon Kennard who can also play WILL, and you get a LB core that can line everyone up in a variety of different positions to best attack the opposing offense’s weaknesses on any given week.
One week the Lions could see Jarrad Davis as a primary pass rusher on the right tackle, the next week he could be playing more of a run support role downhill on the left side of the offensive front. This same principle applies to coverage. One week the Lions could utilize more man concepts, the next more zone, and put each linebacker in the position to succeed, something that Matt Patricia specializes in doing.
The future NFL defense is going to be just as much, if not more so, about being versatile and having the ability to do a variety of different things to confuse quarterbacks, limit mobile quarterbacks, and force electrifying running backs into the teeth of the defense by redirecting runs back inside. The Lions will be able to do that much more effectively with a linebacker group that will be able to make plays in all four phases of defense (man coverage, zone coverage, pass rushing and run stopping).
It would not be much of a surprise to see Christian Jones, Tavai and Davis all on the field at the same time in 4-3 looks in some situations next season, add in Kennard and we could see some 3-4 looks. The Lions still did run base sets 15% of the time. However, this will open things up for 2-4-5 nickel sets, allow for a greater flexibility in 3-3-5 nickel sets, and allow for subs and versatility in 4-2-5 looks as early as next season also.
How Does This Affect Other Lions Players?
One name to keep an eye on next season is Tracy Walker. Walker had an under the radar 2018 season, but is due to break out and leap into the spotlight in 2019. Players like Walker will play a huge role in any future NFL defense, and that includes what the Lions are building this season. It’s been noted by Erik Schlitt of USA Today Lions Wire that “Another notable formation shift the Lions defense ran today (July 25th) was to drop Tracy Walker into the box. He operated at the linebacker level both on the outside covering the slot and in the middle, similar to a money linebacker role.”
Going back to the Chargers example from 2018, there was one player who really stood out on film- Adrian Phillips. He’s a player Lions fans should expect to hear more of during the Lions-Chargers match-up in week two of this upcoming season. Phillips like Walker is a safety who was able to come down into the box and play at the second level, making key plays in run support for the team. If Walker can effectively fill that role, that will only continue to add to the Lions versatility at the second level of the defense next season and beyond. This will also allow the Lions to play in what appears to be a base or nickel formation, while actually having dime personnel on the field. If this works as well as expected, this could confuse opposing quarterbacks, force opposing offenses into running plays, sets or formations they aren’t as comfortable in, and gives the Lions an advantage in disguising coverage against various receivers and running backs as well, potentially reducing those positions impacts against the team’s defense.
Another young player who this future NFL defense would benefit greatly is Will Harris, the Lions third round draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Harris is an extremely athletic safety out of Boston College, and would add an element of speed that’s going to separate the defenses of today from the teams running a defense of the future. Harris has the ability to play in the middle of the field and on the boundaries. With some improvements to his angles and pursuit, which could develop over time, he may end up becoming a fearsome run defender. If he is able to come in and play at NFL speed early on in his career, he could be an amazing young player that helps Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn build the defense of the future for the NFL this coming season. We haven’t even mentioned the effect of the addition of Mike Daniels yet…
The Future Of The Lions Defense Could Set The Standard
The Detroit Lions are the team who, as early as 2019, are going to be on the cutting-edge of defensive alignments. This has come from Bob Quinn’s ability to draft and sign versatile players like Walker, Tavai, Harris, Davis, Austin Bryant and Trey Flowers amongst others. The Chargers are showing the rest of the NFL including the Lions that the mold can work with stars like Derwin James, but the Lions look to be the first in the NFC to be ahead of the trend, a positive sign for the direction of the franchise moving into the 2019 season.