The Lions' New Breed

Tuesday September 23rd, 2014

DETROIT—Fourth-and-5 at the Detroit 20-yard line. Aaron Rodgers looks to his right pre-snap and knows immediately where he’s going with the football. Nimble wide receiver Jordy Nelson is split out with linebacker DeAndre Levy sizing him up as if he’s playing man. Easy money. That 12-point Packers deficit is about to shrink to five points.

Nelson runs half the distance to the end zone and cuts to the post. Levy changes directions with him. Safety Glover Quin arrives with help, and though it appears Nelson has a step on both, the ball is underthrown. Turnover on downs. Lions win.

Storylines were aplenty: Rodgers’ visible frustration, Detroit finally beating the Packers with defense, and the viral moment of the day: Lions MLB Stephen Tulloch tearing his ACL while celebrating a sack.

One question went unanswered: Why in the heck was an outside linebacker covering Jordy Nelson on the biggest play of the game?

“That’s the way it’s drawn up,” says Quin, who quickly consulted with Levy just before he squared up on Nelson. “We were talking about what technique he had and how I would have help over top. But that wasn’t miscommunication or a mistake. He can cover him.

“Actually, DeAndre covers better than a lot of safeties.”

To understand what Levy means to the Lions (especially now that Tulloch is out for the season), you have to appreciate the changing nature of the NFL linebacker. Almost every team still has an every-down inside linebacker who receives helmet audio instructions from the sideline, who stays on the field (barring injury) whether it’s first-and-goal or third-and-long.

“Size is the most overrated thing,” Levy says.“This isn’t the 1940’s. We’re not running a 46 defense. You don’t need to be 260 pounds to stuff a hole.”

That was once true of your top outside linebacker as well. In 2007, the top 16 4-3 outside linebackers, in terms of playing time, each played at least 860 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Six seasons later, in 2013, the top 16 OLBs played just over 700 snaps each. In 2007, 37 outside linebackers (regardless of base defense) were targeted in coverage by quarterbacks at least 30 times. In 2013, that number sat at 21.

“The trend to go more wide open on offense forced you have to have some linebackers who can play in space,” says Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, in his first season as an NFL coordinator after three seasons coaching Baltimore’s defensive backs. “DeAndre is an every down linebacker for us, whereas a lot of teams will put six DBs on the field and have one playing linebacker. Fortunately we don’t have to do that.”

In the last decade, Austin says, teams began keeping an extra safety on the roster and either playing in dime instead of nickel or using a safety in a linebacker spot during passing downs (meanwhile, quarterbacks are targeting inside linebackers at a higher clip; at least 60 targets for the top 16 ILBs in 2013 vs. 50 in 2007).

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“I think there are fewer three-down linebackers out there than there were a few years ago,” Austin says. “You have to get more athletic at that spot.”

The outside linebacker as we know him is fading into football history, something like every-down running backs and midget cornerbacks before him. In the place of your traditional stand-up linebacker is a new prototype: DeAndre Levy. 6-2, 235 pounds, sub 4.5 40-yard dash. He doesn’t shed blocks so much as he side-steps them, and he doesn’t tackle so much as he strikes. He’s good for a missed tackle or two per game, and at least one game-changing play. Tellingly, the Lions have never asked Levy, now in his sixth season, to put on weight.

“Change of direction, moving the hips, quick feet, moving efficiently: That’s the way the position is played now,” Levy says. “Size is the most overrated thing, even now. Guys worry about getting their weight up, but this isn’t the 1940’s. We’re not running a 46 defense. You don’t need to be 260 pounds to stuff a hole.”

In the Monday night opener against the Giants, he trailed Larry Donnell, Big Blue’s emerging young tight end, up the seam and came up with an absurd diving, juggling interception of Eli Manning. When the Giants recognized nickel personnel in the first half they attempted on several occasions to run hurry-up and pound the ball. At every turn, PFF’s top-rated outside linebacker against the run denied them.

“He’s got a tremendous nose for the football,” Austin says. “What it allows us to do is to drop him in coverage and we really don’t worry too much about matchups, because we know he can cover and finish a play, like he did on Monday night.”

During the second quarter on Sunday, Levy read the intentions of pulling guard T.J. Lang and blew by him to tackle Eddie Lacy for a safety. Levy compensated nicely for the glaring deficiencies of Tulloch’s replacement, Tahir Whitehead (The Lions signed Josh Bynes off the Ravens practice squad to compete for Tulloch’s spot).

“We have a lot of respect for him,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Levy on Sunday evening. “He’s been playing very well for a number of years… a hell of a football player.”

With Stephen Tulloch out, Levy and his beard could be sliding to the middle linebacker spot in Week 4. (Leon Halip/Getty Images) With Stephen Tulloch out, Levy and his beard could be sliding to the middle linebacker spot in Week 4. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Levy assumed play-calling duties from the injured Tulloch, wearing a back-up helmet fitted with a speaker. It was an unfamiliar role. Levy is an oddball with a prospector’s beard, a quiet nature and an uncommon zeal for travel. He’s visited South American destinations and roughed it, making headlines last season when he told the Detroit News of hunting and eating frogs and rats in the Amazon.

Says Levy: “Most of my teammates think it’s crazy.”

Typically that’s how he spends the first half of the offseason. The second half is spent in Waukesha, Wis., with a couple of fellow Wisconsinites—Texans lineman J.J. Watt and Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler—training under Brad Arnett.

Arnett calls Levy “freakishly strong.” At 235 pounds. he’s one of the smallest linebackers in the NFL, and he has actually lost weight since leaving Wisconsin in 2009.

“You look at the guy and you say, no way he plays linebacker in the NFL, Arnett says. “But he’s so explosive. One day we put 700 pounds on a bar for deadlifting. Everything they do is so competitive, and Zeitler (6-4, 315) couldn’t move it. We’ve got the music cranked, they’re yelling and screaming at him and he can’t do it.

“‘Dre throws his belt back on and says ‘Zeitler get out of the way,’ and he locks it out. Then he looks over at Zeitler and starts shrugging the weight and says, ‘How’s this?’ ”

Levy was a third-round pick out of Wisconsin after a poor combine that revealed persistent back trouble and some new training injuries. He worked through it with Arnett, and over his first few seasons he played every linebacker position, struggling at times against the run. He broke out last season in pass coverage. Quarterbacks had a 57.5 passer rating with one touchdown and six interceptions when throwing his way. Rodgers was 3-for-6 for 33 yards without a score against him in Sunday’s 19-7 loss.

Detroit has now beaten Green Bay twice in a row for the first time in 15 years, ending Rodgers’ unblemished 9-0 run (excluding a 2010 game in which he left with an injury) against the Lions. Levy, the Lions’ resident voice of reason in postgame interviews, declined to make much connection between last season’s win over a Packers team minus Rodgers and Sunday’s win, which puts Detroit at 2-1, tied with the Bears atop the NFC North.

“I think we know who the player is and the trouble we had with him in the past,” Levy said of Rodgers. “Every year it’s a different reason why [we lose], but I think we played a complete game and rose to the challenge, and that can help us going forward as long as we don’t get to caught up in it next week.”

As the Lions prep for the Jets without Tulloch, it’s likely Levy moves to middle linebacker for Week 4 and the foreseeable future. Watch closely, because his success or failure in the middle just might tell us something about the future of the position.

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