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Lions' safety play shows Bob Quinn's most important move wasn't replacing Megatron

Miles Killebrew, Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson aren't household names, but they're a big reason why the Lions' new general manager is off to such a hot start.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Almost from the moment the Lions named Bob Quinn their general manager back on Jan. 11, Quinn was bombarded with questions about the player who then was the franchise’s biggest star.

Have you talked to Calvin Johnson? Any idea when Calvin Johnson will retire? How do you replace Calvin Johnson?

The volume with which that final question flew Quinn’s direction only intensified after Johnson announced his retirement in early March. Quinn’s general message never really changed: Calvin’s a great player and no one can take his spot, but the only way the Lions can succeed—at wide receiver and elsewhere—is to have a better roster from top to bottom.

“It’s easy to examine your top 10 players, your top 15 players,” Quinn said during an interview with SiriusXM in June, “But to me, in my time I spent in New England, I felt like we created a lot of competition from roster spots 30 to 53, and then really, the 10 guys on the practice squad. So, you’re really talking from roster spots 30 to 63 is really how you create the depth of your team.”

He had said the same at his introductory press conference in Detroit, promising that “our team will be based on having outstanding depth,” and again at the scouting combine.

Depth. Depth. Depth. Megatron or not (not, as it turned out), Quinn’s No. 1 aim was to ensure the Lions’ roster no longer was top-heavy. A dozen games into Quinn’s first season on the job, with the Lions leading the NFC North and closing in on just their third playoff trip since 2000, nowhere has that focus become clearer than at the safety position.

Right around the time Johnson announced his retirement, Quinn snagged a pair of free-agent safeties: Tavon Wilson, a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2012, the same year Quinn was promoted to New England’s director of player personnel; and Rafael Bush, an experienced veteran coming off a season ruined by injury. Quinn then used a fourth-round pick in April’s draft on Southern Utah’s Miles Killebrew.

Somewhere in that group, the Lions hoped to find a reliable starter to pair with Glover Quin, a mainstay in their starting lineup. What they wound up with instead was a highly versatile safety unit, one which has driven Detroit’s defensive resurgence in recent weeks.

“[Quinn] brought guys here, we’ve competed well and made each other better,” Bush says. “And the results you see are guys doing a good job and players making plays.”

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Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin increasingly has relied on three-safety looks, in part to mask the Lions’ second-level coverage issues with injuries limiting linebacker DeAndre Levy to just one game this season so far. The Lions entered last Sunday’s game at New Orleans also missing Tahir Whitehead (knee) and then slot cornerback Quandre Diggs exited in the third quarter with a season-ending pectoral injury.

Austin’s response was to lean on his safeties. In Week 1, there wasn’t much variance in playing time—Glover Quin played 100% of the defensive snaps, Bush and Wilson rotated and Killebrew barely set foot on the field. In the 28–13 win over New Orleans, during which Detroit ended Drew Brees’s home TD streak at 60 games, the safeties combined to play 180 snaps (Quin 61 of a possible 61, Wilson 50, Bush 48, Killebrew 21).

“Especially early on, [Bob Quinn] created an environment where there was so much healthy competition,” Killebrew says. “I think the healthy part of it was important, because we were trying to help each other win but trying to win that spot, too.”

Killebrew (or “Killa”, if you prefer) has been a pleasant surprise, and arguably the most important element in Detroit expanding its safeties’ role. At 6' 2", 222 pounds, the rookie is the biggest of Detroit’s safety core by a decent margin, making him the obvious choice to handle a safety/linebacker hybrid role. He and Wilson (6' 0", 212) tend to play closer to the line, while at least one of Quin or Bush is often tasked with deep help.

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The three-safety alignment certainly is not brand new—Wilson and Bob Quinn’s former team, the Patriots, utilize it often, as do defenses like Kansas City and Houston. But because of a lack of options, Austin has not shown much of it in Detroit, until now.

“You’ve got to have the guys to do it,” Wilson says. “You can’t line up with three deep safeties, you have to have a guy who can line up closer to the line of scrimmage or play a corner-like position. It all depends on what you have on the roster.”

The strides made by Killebrew in recent weeks have made it easier for Austin to mix and match, too. A big hitter in college, Killebrew was expected to contribute on special teams (which he has done) while he learned the nuances of being an NFL safety. The Lions, though, piled even more on his plate by asking him to be the extra safety in their big nickel packages.

“It’s hard, because that third safety not only has to learn safety but he has to learn linebacker,” Killebrew says. “It was hard at first, because I didn’t know anything about this defense. So I had to learn the back end, which was hard, and then I had to learn the front end, which was even harder.”

Bob Quinn foretold this development back at the combine, too, at least to some extent. He revealed then that he expected the Lions to be in their sub- or nickel packages—meaning fewer linebackers and more defensive backs—“close to 70% of the time.” The safe assumption was that Quinn meant extra work for the cornerbacks, but that was before he brought in Bush, Wilson and Killebrew.

Quinn’s work in total this season, or at least how it has played out for the division-leading Lions, has been nothing short of impressive. He doesn’t have a flawless 53-man roster (if such a thing exists)—just this week, he had to scramble a bit for bodies at corner and running back. However, the list of accomplishments does indeed begin with keeping the offense humming despite Johnson’s retirement, which Quinn did by signing Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin and then drafting offensive tackle Taylor Decker and G/C Graham Glasgow. It also includes adding rookie defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and surprise standout DL Kerry Hyder.

Were it not for the Jones family in Dallas or Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie, Quinn would have a legitimate claim to Executive of the Year status right now. True, the Lions made the playoffs just two years back, but they limped to 7–9 last season and then ... well, we’ve covered the Calvin Johnson ground.

There was no method, nor really any reason, for Quinn to overhaul the roster in one season. He turned his attention to what he knew was important.

“I really want to build the depth for this team,” Quinn said at the combine. “That’s something that I really truly believe in. We have some good players. I think the depth really needs to improve, and that’s something I’m going to set out and do in free agency, hopefully.”

Free agency, the draft, a trade here or there. Whatever works.

The project is nowhere near complete. Flip two or three of the Lions’ dramatic wins into the loss column and this team would be at or under .500, as opposed to atop the division by two games, where it resides today.

The wheels are very much in motion, though, toward Quinn’s end goal. The way his deep, functional safety group has taken charge of the defense this season is what the Lions would love to replicate throughout the roster.

“I’ll say this, if that was the case where there wasn’t competition, I don’t think I would be as good as I am right now,” says Killebrew, whose play down the stretch will be critical if the Lions want to close out the division. “I don’t think I would have progressed as quickly as I did with the healthy competition.”