Handcuffed to a system that never took advantage of their speed or intensity, the Detroit Lions defense -- despite all of their athletic sovereignty -- struggled in 2005.
Under defensive coordinator Dick Jauron's 'bend-but-don't break' scheme, which confined player movement, options, but most of all instincts, the Lions finished in the bottom half of the league in nearly ever statistical category. Big plays were a rare premium, even for Mr. Big Play, veteran cornerback Dre' Bly.
What a difference a strategy makes.
In Allen Park the past week, defensive backs have been encouraged to take risks; linebackers have been told to be aggressive; defensive linemen have been unleashed. The result has been one of the more up-tempo, productive and, naturally, exciting camps in recent memory.
Along with a couple of off-season acquisitions, all the coaching staff has done is simply preach the 'D'.
The 'D' symbolizing both the team's new defense-first approach, and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson.
Under the supervision of head coach Rod Marinelli, Henderson has allowed the team's gifted defenders to be used properly via the "Tampa 2" defense, utilized by Marinelli during his days as the Buccaneers defensive line coach. Unlike Jauron's bland and limited philosophy, the Tampa 2 thrives primarily on attitude instead of gimmicks, and requires speed and athleticism to back it up.
The Lions offense, which is admittedly still in its infancy, has been peppered with vicious hits, frustrated by intimidation, and overall, found life difficult at the hands of a more evolved defense. For the most part, it's been nightmarish.
But it might not just be the difference in learning curve. While Detroit's offense will come on eventually, the defense might already be the real deal.
"Especially when we have our two big guys inside, we have a chance to be a really physical and dominant front with (Shaun) Cody and Shaun (Rogers)," said head coach Rod Marinell on Thursday. "I just like the way they're working; the effort and the speed I really like.
"You just have to pay attention to detail right now."
That detail will ultimately determine who ends up starting for Detroit. Theoretically, the linebackers will consist of rookie Ernie Sims (weakside) and third-year man Teddy Lehman (strongside) flanking middle linebacker Boss Bailey. Lehman remains out due to a nagging ankle injury, but if healthy, the trio is perhaps the fastest of any linebacker core in the National Football League.
If Lehman is unable to return, Detroit still flaunts speed with seventh-round rookie Anthony Cannon, who has turned in an exceptional camp, joined by fellow outside linebackers James Davis and Alex Lewis.
The most important of the linebackers is Bailey. In Detroit's scheme, Bailey will join the safeties and be responsible for the deep middle zone. Because of his lateral ability and reaction speed, Bailey is a natural fit, and can hang with most tight ends, running backs and even receivers.
After returning from the physically-unable-to-perform list just a few days ago, Bailey is practicing with the team, albeit in a more exempt role. The Lions will allow him to participate more extensively in the 9-on-7's and two-minute drills as early as Saturday.
The other battle is at the safety position. Because the Tampa 2 doesn't necessarily require a "free" safety (each player is equally responsible for one half of the deep secondary), rookie Daniel Bullocks and his hawkish mentality might unseat the more reserved but athletic Terrence Holt.
Bullocks possesses more speed than Holt, and has already made startling plays on the second team. Bullocks has one interception, but has bullied receivers into dropped passes with respect to his zone. Holt is still on the first team, but the prevailing thought is that unless he has a relapse, Bullocks could claim the job by the third preseason game.
"Well, we'll see," said Marinelli, who has expressed a more wait-and-see approach during camp with each rookie. "I want (both Sims and Bullocks) to earn it. And that's important after everything I've said, let's just let them come in and see how well they do and earn the spots because the guy in front of him might be playing better.
"We want to play the best Lions, or they may have a great opportunity to get into the rotation. It might be that we have a chance to rotate a guy in (for) a series to be fresh. Once these guys go in - sometimes when you have a first round pick, you just hand it to them and he never understands what it takes to earn a job."
Between Bly and the imminent return of fellow Pro Bowler Shaun "Big Baby", who recently had his tonsils yanked, the Lions defense returns a core of talented and hungry playmakers. With the likely addition of Bullocks and Sims, the 2006 rendition of Detroit's defense is eager to flourish without the restraints.
Unlike a season ago, that personality is reflected in their tutor, Henderson.
"He suits any defense," said Marinelli. "If you like aggressive, physical, hitting, and sprinting to the football, then you like Donnie."