The Detroit Lions are completing their first week of training camp, the first training camp the team has conducted without the services of Ndamukong Suh since 2009.
We’ve recently looked at the impact the loss of Suh would have on the defensive line, now we’ll shift focus to the linebacker corps.
Potentially the team’s deepest position on either side of the ball, the Lions are loaded with talented players in this group. This starts with DeAndre Levy – the group’s top player – but also includes Stephen Tulloch, Tahir Whitehead and Kyle Van Noy among others.
The group is deep and versatile. They have the ability to cover, blitz and contain. The group consists of sure tacklers and smart players.
So, how could the loss of a defensive tackle impact a strong positional group such as this?
It’s simple, the Lions will have to offset the loss of Suh as both a pass rusher and a run stopper. The former represents the biggest challenge.
Consider this; in 2014, the Lions were among the most infrequent blitzers in the NFL. Of course, these rankings can be somewhat skewed because 3-4 teams will blitz more often. Still, the Lions ranked ahead of only 10 teams in the league, blitzing less than a quarter of the time (24.9 percent).
Considering that the Lions didn’t blitz on about 75 percent of their opportunities, they were extremely effective at rushing the passer. As a matter of fact, according to Profootballfocus, the Lions were the second most effective team at getting to the quarterback when they didn’t blitz, generating 35 sacks, 54 hits and 101 hurries on 517 opportunities.
Think about that, the Lions disrupted the quarterback on about 30 percent of their opportunities by only rushing four lineman. The freedom and support that provides to the back seven is incredible.
Levy was asked to rush the passer only 79 times last year (compare that to 661 snaps he spent in pass coverage), Whitehead rushed 52 times vs. 443 snaps in coverage. The team’s other linebackers had similar splits.
If the Lions find a way to generate the same sort of pressure upfront without Suh, this shouldn’t change. However, that is virtually impossible. Granted, the Lions still have talent up front but it might not be realistic for them to be a top-five pass-rushing team without blitzing.
If the Lions do end up blitzing more, this will take the backers out of coverage and provide opportunities for more completions to the opposing offense.
In addition to the potential for more pass rushing responsibilities, the linebacker group will have to deal with more traffic when making their way to a ball carrier, as offensive coordinators will be more free to use blocking schemes to neutralize the second-level without having to focus the extra attention on Suh (not to say that Haloti Ngata won’t draw some double teams).
Ultimately, the Lions might need to turn to this deep and talented position group to help supplement the loss of Suh. The question is, can the group be as effective and productive without him?