Here’s what Dan Campbell envisions for Lions’ defensive scheme

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions have never had a worse defense than they had in 2020, allowing more yards and points than any time in franchise history. If new general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell wanted to burn the unit to the ground and start over, who could blame them? 

But that’s not the plan. And neither is a schematic overhaul.

Instead, Campbell and first-year defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn want to build upon the foundation that exists, while incorporating elements from two of the league’s top defenses from 2020 — the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams. 

“I would say that we’re talking more about kinda what’s been here, an advanced version of that,” Campbell told the Detroit News. “I would say there’s going to be things AG will keep coverage-wise that we were doing in New Orleans. But I would say it may look a little more like the Rams, a little more like what (former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon) Staley and them were doing out there, as far as the front.

What does that mean? Let’s start with the backend. Thanks to some research provided by Pro Football Focus, we know the Lions were close to evenly split on their man and zone coverage looks last year, slightly favoring man-to-man. 

Within that, the Lions leaned heavily on Cover-1 looks when in man — a single, deep safety providing support for the cornerbacks. And in zone, the Lions preferred Cover-2 and Cover-3, which divides responsibility for the deepest parts of the field between two or three defenders, respectively. 

The Saints, on the other hand, were more zone-heavy with their coverage, playing man just over 36 percent of the time. And while they also ran their fair share of Cover-2 and Cover-3 looks in zone, the Saints most frequently used quarters, or Cover-4, which has four deep defenders. The Lions, by contrast, ran quarters fewer than one percent of their defensive snaps in 2020. 

As for Campbell’s suggestion the Lions will utilize a front similar to what the Rams ran under Staley, that’s a commitment to keeping a 3-4 base the team installed under former coach Matt Patricia. 

Of course, Staley’s defense, which was a marriage of schemes run by former bosses Wade Phillips and Vic Fangio, have been some of the most successful in the league in recent years, including 2020. 

Campbell acknowledges, like most teams, the Lions will use plenty of nickel packages to combat the NFL’s pass-heavy nature. But when in base, there will be a focus on setting the edges and stopping the run on early downs.  

One other thing of note that sticks out about Staley’s defense was his desire to create mismatches. As explained in an ESPN story earlier this month, “His goal is to create one-on-one matchups in the run game and two-on-one matchups in the passing game.”

In Campbell’s introductory news conference, before committing to any scheme, he highlighted an emphasis of exploiting opponent’s weaknesses. 

“Here’s my philosophy on offense and defense, for that matter: We’re going to run a system that puts our best on your worst,” Campbell said. “That’s what we’re going to do because that’s what we did in New Orleans. We’re going to find a way to put our guys in one-on-one matchups, whether it’s run or pass.”

During the conversation with Campbell, he respectfully avoided speaking critically of Detroit’s former coaching staff, but did reiterate some comments he made in an interview with 97.1 shortly after his hire that the talent of the players he’s inheriting seemed burdened by what they were being asked to do. 

“(Glenn) and I were watching it the other day, and there was enough stuff to where, man, why are they playing slow?” Campbell said. “This is a much better athlete, he should be playing faster. It just looks like there’s indecision. It looks like they’re timid. They look like they had lacked confidence. I’m just talking about the players that were here.

“I feel like AG can help a lot of that, and his staff,” Campbell continued. “I think that the ability to bring a little bit of confidence back into these guys. I think you put these guys in situations where they can grow and learn. I think you do some one-on-ones in front of your teammates and you find out you know who gets a little embarrassed and who rises up, and if you’re a guy who doesn’t rise to the challenge, put him in it again, put him in the next day, do it again, do it again. Make him get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I just think we can help some of those things.”

And yes, Campbell does expect some personnel upgrades. Without offering specifics, he noted the team was going to need some new pieces on defense this offseason, while also expressing confidence Holmes was going to find them.

The final piece of the puzzle, in Campbell’s mind, will be attitude. He wants to capture the all-out intensity he grew accustomed to seeing on the practice field in New Orleans. 

“Look, it’s no secret if you want you want a balls-to-the-wall defense, your best player better be the guy who’s balls to the wall,” Campbell said. “Cam Jordan was the first one in practice to the ball every day, and then Demario Davis. Those are like two of our top guys. Then we’ve got Marcus Davenport sprinting, (David) Onyemata sprinting to the ball.

“Man, that’s the secret,” Campbell said. “How do we create this attitude, this aggressiveness, this all-out effort? I think those things, just in themselves, if you didn’t do one other thing, I think they’ll be a little bit better. I really do.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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