The system a defensive coordinator chooses to run tells you something about his coaching style: Is he more of a teacher, or is he a schemer at heart?
If he's a teacher, he prefers to dedicate practice hours to drilling fundamentals and mechanics. This results in a simplified scheme, based on execution, and it requires less classroom work. A schemer, on the other hand, is more inclined to spend extra time adding wrinkles to his various packages. Instead of outexecuting opponents, he tries to outsmart them.
Execution-based defense is harder to play against, while complex schemes are more difficult to prepare for. The rule of thumb is, The better your personnel, the simpler your scheme can be.
Martin Mayhew, in his sixth season as Lions general manager, clearly prefers the better-personnel, basic-scheme route, having spent high first-round picks on defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh (2010), Nick Fairley ('11) and Ziggy Ansah ('13). Mayhew understands that a formidable, basic 4--3 zone starts with thunderous line play, and that's what his handpicked coach, the defensive-minded Jim Schwartz, emphasized. But the results were not good. In Schwartz's five seasons, Detroit ranked 32nd, 19th, 23rd, 27th and 15th in points allowed (though it's worth noting that in the two years before Schwartz's arrival, the Lions ranked last both times).
Now Mayhew has new coaches, and the schemes will become more complex. Head man Jim Caldwell, who came over from Baltimore, where he was offensive coordinator, brought with him Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin, who replaces Gunther Cunningham (now a senior coaching assistant) as defensive coordinator. Austin's former defense was not quite as multiple as people assume; it hasn't been since 2009, when then coordinator Rex Ryan left Baltimore to coach the Jets. But if the Lions weren't looking for a coordinator who would change tactics, they would have tapped a Cover Two retread such as Dick Jauron or kept the respected Cunningham.
To be fair, Cunningham has been a diverse schemer over his long career, and he started expanding his arsenal in Detroit last season, mainly by moving his linemen around, especially early in games. Austin will likely advance those concepts, with Suh being the linchpin. Though the defensive tackle's numbers have never matched the 10 sacks and 49 tackles he had as a rookie, Suh remains one of the most disruptive linemen in football. He attacks blocks and willingly draws double teams, creating opportunities for his teammates.
The main beneficiary of this is fellow tackle Fairley, whose fifth-year option the team tellingly did not pick up as a means of motivating him. (Message received? The gifted but inconsistent dynamo dropped more than 25 pounds, and actually had to put weight back on after being told by his coaches that he was too light.) Ansah, who was born in Ghana and didn't start playing organized football until he was a sophomore at BYU, was as raw as war spelled backward his rookie season. But he has the speed and power to pile up double-digit sacks even though he is still in the nascent stages of his development. His eight sacks led all rookies.
But unless the Lions' talented line lives up to its potential—which it hasn't since 2010—Austin will have to lean on the back seven to carry out his ploys. He has a pair of decent (but only decent) coverage linebackers in DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, and joining them in the base 4--3 will be versatile second-round rookie Kyle Van Noy from BYU. Where most schemes create deception is at safety, and Detroit has interchangeable ones in free-agent pickup James Ihedigbo, who played for Austin in Baltimore, and six-year veteran Glover Quin, one of the better man-to-man tight end defenders in the league. But there's no quality depth behind them, and the cornerbacking unit is far from reliable.
At least Austin has the good fortune of coaching opposite an offense that features maybe the best pure arm in football (quarterback Matthew Stafford), the most physically imposing wide receiver ever (Calvin Johnson) and versatile ancillary weapons in running back Reggie Bush and first-round rookie tight end Eric Ebron. Detroit's ability to score in bunches gives Austin more leeway to take chances—a schemer's favorite way to compensate for shortcomings in personnel.
2013 Record: 7--9
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The QB's new scheme
For the first time since his rookie year, in 2009, Matthew Stafford is learning a new system—that of Joe Lombardi, the former Saints quarterbacks coach who was hired by the Lions to install New Orleans's advanced, verbiage-heavy scheme. Stafford, whose arm can be described—both positively and negatively—as a loose cannon, is now being asked to handle a heavier mental load. It will be fascinating to see how much presnap motion is in Lombardi's offense. Stafford has always preferred to line up in a static formation in order to get a still picture of the defense and identify some of the crazy coverages dedicated to Calvin Johnson. Last season, though, Stafford did have more reps with Megatron aligning in the slot and a wide receiver shifting or a running back going in motion. The expectation is that Lombardi will view Johnson as he did Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham: The more ways he's used, the bigger headaches he causes. The key to this new complexity, though, is how quickly Stafford grasps it.
THE CASE FOR
Reggie Bush & Joique Bell
Bush has been a football celebrity for over 10 years, the electrifying tailback from USC who never quite lived up to expectations. But he is also admired by aficionados for the way he has developed into a respectable between-the-tackles runner late in his career. Bell (left) is a 5'11", 229-pound back who is built like a plodder, except that he doesn't actually plod. Last season defenses never got wise to the skills of the 28-year-old undrafted journeyman as he torched them with his vision, patience and surprisingly light feet. While Bush was dangerous on swing passes and option routes, Bell was lethal on screens—sometimes running them off Bush's routes in a dual backfield. Bush and Bell became the first running back tandem to each have more than 500 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving. The duo could inflict even more damage this year. Detroit has an athletic tight end in rookie Eric Ebron (North Carolina) to go with a new No. 2 receiver in Seahawks free agent Golden Tate. Defenses will have more to worry about downfield, creating even greater opportunities underneath for the backfield playmakers.