When the subject of disappointing NFL teams is bandied about at the water coolers and watering holes, the Detroit Lions are always in the conversation. After all, the Lions could easily be 0-4.
Fans are more than restless. Fantasy owners are sitting more Lions than they are playing—lamenting another lost season, and the call for heads on pikes is a common refrain in the “D“.
To what extent is the secondary culpable for such a lackluster performance? What changes, if any, to personnel is needed to right this “ship of tools?”
Blame It On the Secondary?
In 2011, the Lions secondary was so bereft of depth that WR Rashied Davis had to step in as an emergency CB as the Lions faded at the end of the season. Fans and pundits alike call the injuries to FS Louis Delmas and starting right CB Chris Houston as the turning point in an otherwise moderately successful season. This theory is born out in every defensive team statistical category before and after the injuries.
Band-Aids on Bullet Wounds
Clearly, some changes in 2012 were in order. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham took his desperation out on head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew, who went to work on the problem immediately.
The free agency defection of starting RCB Eric Wright was met with no resistance, and the hole in the secondary became a yawning chasm. The Lions were in the midst of a salary cap crisis which precluded the acquisition of any of the big-name talent on the free agent market.
That said, Mayhew went to plan-B; building the secondary through the draft and picking up players off the waiver wire.
Mayhew picked up a second tier CB from the Colts, Jacob Lacey. Later, Mayhew would pick up well traveled CB Drayton Florence. Band-Aids on bullet wounds.
From Crisis to Catastrophe
The Lions announced in mid July that CB Aaron Berry would become the starting right CB. In less than one week, Berry was released from the team after two arrests on the same day.
The “message” that further off-field misbehavior would not be tolerated by cutting Berry was, in this analyst’s view, a blessing in disguise. Berry was a rather small CB by modern standards whose most natural position is on the left side—not the right.
Seeking Answers in the NFL Draft
Mayhew did make an effort to move up in the previous two drafts for starting caliber talent. CB Patrick Peterson in 2011 and CB Stephon Gilmore in 2012. Uncharacteristically for Mayhew, both attempts failed.
The Lions did manage to draft three CBs. Bill “don’t call me Dwight” Bentley in the third round, small school freak of nature Chris Greenwood in the fifth round and obscure Jonte Green from Louisiana Lafayette in the sixth round. Greenwood suffered an abdominal injury and is on the PUP list.
The Lions took a pass on stud CB Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins looked like a problem child that the Lions could ill afford considering the heap of off-field incidents that plagued the locker room.
Ironically, Bentley was the No. 2 CB behind Jenkins on the same Pahokee high school team in Florida.
While Bentley fell short of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s specifications at 5’10” and 185 pounds (Gunny wanted big CBs), Bentley was the clear leader in training camp for the starting role at right CB.
Turnover and Turmoil: The DB Edition
The opening week of training camp put FS Louis Delmas on the sidelines. SS Amari Spievey seemed to have regressed and safety Ricardo Silva lacked the expected improvement you usually see in a second year DB.
Safety Erik Coleman was getting after it, as was journeyman special teams ace John Wendling. They got the nod as the starting tandem at safety.
As for the CBs, the Lions were desperate for a backup to LCB Chris Houston, who was sidelined again. The only CB to work well there was rookie Jonte Green, who was too raw for prime time. It was all hands on deck for the coaching staff who mentored Green after every practice snap. Even WR coach Shawn Jefferson pitched in, helping DB coach Tim Walton in the process of bringing Green up to speed.
Gunther Cunningham’s head was spinning at the horror of starting two rookie CBs. Free agent Jacob Lacey wasn’t the answer at LCB and Alphonso Smith continued to go off-reservation in Gunny’s scheme, looking foolish in the process.
Late in training camp, Anphonso Smith would be released in favor of another free agent has been, Drayton Florence. Florence won the left CB job by default and did a credible job until breaking his arm in Week 3.
In Week 4, FS Ricardo Silva was activated as a starter off the practice squad, where he landed after being cut earlier and clearing waivers. Silva's role has been that of the deep center fielder who closes quickly enough to support the run defense.
Yes, turnover and turmoil seems to be the chronic lament of the Detroit Lions secondary.
The “Bend, But Don’t Break” Defensive Scheme Needs to be Scrapped
What was Gunther Cunningham to do with five new DBs including two rookies? He decided to take an uber-conservative approach, playing largely a cover-two defense that granted huge cushions to opponent’s receivers. Oh, there were the occasional one-deep looks too, but the results were predictable considering the roles that the secondary were compelled to play.
Cunningham decided to get the DBs into position where they could secure tackles. However, they have seldom, if ever, been in a position to make a play on the ball. Predictably, opposing QBs are given a license to move the chains—even in the red zone. Even linebackers who drop into zone coverage are being exploited.
It’s time for Cunningham and Schwartz to realize that you have to mix coverages; playing some man-press and even going off reservation to jump some predictable pass routes.
It’s a gamble to be sure, and you will get burned occasionally. However, the Lions secondary hasn’t recorded a single interception after four games, and have been subjected to far too many pass interference and holding penalties in the prevailing conservative scheme.
When All Else Fails, Let the Players Play
With the Lions front seven failing to put opposing QBs under any serious duress, the pressure mounts on the secondary, where the conservative bend, but don’t break paradigm is failing miserably.
It’s time to let the players play. Give them a longer leash. Allow them to employ their instincts; the most important trait that a DB possesses. Mix your coverages. Play some man-press. Blitz.
Being willing to do the unexpected is admittedly a high risk, high reward proposition. However, for a defense desperately in need of a lift, turning the dogs loose—be they ever so meek, might be a pivotal point in turning this season around.