Thursday, February 23, 2012

2011: the defense in review (with special teams)

Part 3 of my season-in-review series. Yeah, things came up, so this should have been out  a couple of weeks ago, but at least free agency hasn't started yet.

DE: B

Performance: Surprisingly, the Lions' defensive line as a whole dropped off from 2010. Their ASR dropped from 7.7% to 6.5% even though they recorded only two fewer sacks: this was partly a result of not trailing nearly as often and thus seeing a lot more passes, and partly a result of ... I don't know. I would have thought the secondary had improved this year - see my comments below. Maybe the Lions just played teams with better offensive lines. Anyway, while the ends did a pretty good job, they need to get more sacks. If the goal is to contend for a Super Bowl, they have to be able to get to QBs like Rodgers and Brees, and that did not happen enough this year.

Depth here is not an issue. Vanden Bosch, Avril, Young and Jackson are all good players, meaning that the Lions can rest their speed demons and still get comparable pressure. On the other hand, their speed is occasionally an issue much as it has been in Indianapolis with Mathis and Freeney: great if the QB has the ball, not so great if he doesn't. Vanden Bosch adjusts very well to the run – the Lions were best in the league at runs around left end, allowing just 2.22 ALY per play – but Avril was susceptible to counters and draws, as Detroit's ALY at right end (from the offense's perspective) rose to 4.80, third-worst in the league.

Top priority: Obviously, re-signing unrestricted free agent Avril. My faith in his productivity was rewarded this year; even given his struggles against the run, he had a solid year, and his interception against San Diego demonstrated the athleticism that he brings to the position. One of the few players that Schwartz and Mayhew kept from the Dark Times, he's obviously the kind of player they want, so it's up to them to get him signed before the season starts. (Maybe he's figured out that if you do it just right, you can sit out the boring parts of the exhibition season.)

Other needs: Everyone else is under contract, so it's really just a matter of signing Avril. If he somehow gets away, I'm not sure how the Lions could replace him without spending the type of money that he probably wants in the first place.

DT: B

Performance: Again, generally good performance, just not enough pressure at times. The DTs' weakness was trap and wham plays, as we saw in the San Francisco game: those plays basically gave the 49ers the win. The Lions were strong against runs up the middle (3.69 ALY, 7th in the league) and on third-down plays in general, and Suh and Williams were big factors there. 

Hill was a solid backup all year; Fairley joined him once his foot was 100%. Fluellen is adequate, but works fine with the backup unit. (He'd be a liability if he had to start.)

Top priority: Suh is obviously the top starter, but it may be his contract that is the most important issue here. If he's willing to restructure it, the Lions can re-sign Avril. If not, then the Lions may have to cut Williams and hope that Fairley or Hill is ready for full-time duty.

Other needs: Figuring out whether or not Hill can be part of the rotation. He's a RFA, so the Lions have more options with him, but it may turn out that they need to cut him loose to save cap space.

LB: C

Performance: This is actually a pretty significant improvement over the last couple of years. For a change, linebackers were actually closing on the ball and making plays; sometimes they even dropped into coverage correctly. They still don't work together as a unit all the time, but this could be because, well, they haven't played much together, not with Durant and Tulloch coming in as FAs from Jacksonville and Tennessee.

At times, they seem to rely a little too much on the DL: I charted a number of plays where the LBs were passive, letting the play come up to them. Second-level yards weren't quite as much of a problem this year (1.23, 19th) as last year (1.25, 26th), but there's still improvement to be made.

Top priority: Comparing Tulloch's value to his salary demands. As an UFA, he could ask for a contract that Detroit can't afford to offer, and there may be other situations that would be better for him ... but there can't be too many of them, and I believe Schwartz made a point of pursuing him last season. I'm not sure Tulloch will dismiss that easily.

Other needs: A backup or backups, depending on the status of Bobby Carpenter, another UFA. He's contributed both as a backup and on special teams, so he's the kind of guy that could be replaced, but not as easily as people might think. Ashlee Palmer is primarily a ST guy as well, but a RFA: the Lions might choose to replace him if they don't think he can play defense more often.

CB: C-

Performance: When they were good, they seemed very, very good. When they were bad, they were awful. Houston and Wright are the kind of guys who can take advantages of mistakes, but not so much the kind that can force them. Beyond that, the Lions had below-replacement-level performance, to the point that Cunningham rarely used a dime package, even if it meant putting a LB or S on a WR.

On a number of early-season plays, the corners were beaten by taller, athletic WRs (Dez Bryant, for example). There is an argument to be made that even their better plays could be attributed more to QB mistakes (think Tony Romo), so this C- is really like the combination of an F and an A.

Top priority: Getting a good, tall corner. Eric Wright is an UFA; his confidence issues and size may mean that the Lions look elsewhere to fill his spot. Depending on what's available when they're on the clock, this could even come in the draft.

Other needs: Quality backups. Brandon McDonald is an UFA and should probably be released; Berry and Smith are still young, so maybe they'll develop into better corners, but it would be nice to have a couple of CBs on the bench who won't hurt the team if they have to start.

S: C-

Performance: Once you get beyond Delmas, the performance was questionable at best, and when he was injured late in the season, the secondary struggled. Spievey still doesn't play well enough from time to time to justify his starting role, but the lack of depth behind him was a huge issue, particularly when Delmas was out. Wendling was fine as usual on special teams, but a bit out of his element on the field, and guys like Coleman and Harris were basically just fill-ins.

Top priority: Figuring out what to do at SS. Is Spievey really the guy? He's just a third-year player, so it's not likely they'll be able to replace him with a known star, and maybe a full offseason will help him work out some of the problems I saw last season. After all, he did make some pretty good plays as well. The problem is that the Lions will likely be having cap issues the next couple of seasons, so they might be better off finding a new, young SS now rather than trying to get Spievey under the cap with a RFA contract.

Other needs: Getting players who can play on special teams and also play safety. Detroit's ST were bad enough (see below) that it's hard to recommend keeping many of the existing guys, and the play in the absence of Delmas was not good.

K: C-

Performance: I know, worse than I thought it should be, but numbers don't lie, right? Hanson was 5 of 7 from 50 or more this year, kind of: his longest made FG was 51 yards, so his age is starting to show. His one blocked kick was costly, and the efficiency of the offense meant that he had significantly fewer attempts, especially from 40-49, and going 2 of 4 from there was not good. Kicking off from the 35 helped his touchback percentage, but he just doesn't get enough height on those kicks, and the coverage team isn't good anyway, so teams returned kicks fairly well against the Lions.

Needs: A kickoff specialist, at the very least. I haven't read that Hanson was going to retire, or that Schwartz wanted to replace him, so let's assume he returns. He'll turn 42 before the season starts, so his range is going to shrink a little. He's been a great kicker for a long, long time, and kicking indoors will keep him active for a while longer, but kicking indoors would help a young, strong kicker as well.

P: C+

Performance: As with kickoffs, unimpressive at times, but unlike with kickoffs, quite impressive other times. Ryan Donahue replaced the ineffective Nick Harris and was unremarkable for eight games before going out with a season-ending injury; the Lions signed Ben Graham, who turned out to be better than he'd been in Arizona, but some of that may have been the coverage units. (Doesn't make sense, because Arizona actually improved without him, but maybe their new punter is just that much better.)

Needs: Figure out who the punter is going to be moving forward. You really can't carry four kickers, which means that the Lions will have to cut one if they're going to look for help for Hanson. Graham would be that one, given that he's an UFA and Donahue is on a rookie contract.

KR: C

Performance: Unspectacular, but not horrible. Stefan Logan was never really a threat to break one, but then he didn't make any drive-preventing errors that I recall either. Given the boom-or-bust-but-mostly-bust nature of return games, this is probably about what you can expect.

Needs: None, really. If there's a solid CB in the draft who also returns kicks, sure, give him a chance, but there's nothing wrong with a guy who'll put you near your 20 every time.

PR: D

Performance: Not much help here. Logan led the NFL with 28 fair catches, but the real story was that he was 25th in average return – that's next to last among qualified returners, ahead of only Armanti Edwards of Carolina. (Hmm. Maybe they should quit trying to play QBs at positions other than QB. Keep in mind that the Panthers thought Jimmy Clausen was a QB.) Basically, Logan had two choices: not much yardage or no yards at all.

Needs: Better blocking, and perhaps a returner more suited to punt returns. No, Patrick Peterson won't be available in the second round, but the Lions could sure use someone with better broken-field running skills than Logan.

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