‘No waiting on anything’: Lions hope new defensive scheme boosts linebacker play

Detroit News

Allen Park — Kelvin Sheppard was disgusted.

“Oh, that right there makes me cringe,” he said.

Sheppard, the Lions’ linebackers coach, had just been told that veteran Alex Anzalone described Detroit’s linebackers as playing a “wait-and-pat-your-feet” style.

“There’s no patting your feet at all in this system that we’re playing anymore,” Sheppard said last month. “There’s no waiting on anything. You better be off the spot, reading and reacting. Your key-in diagnosing skills have to be pretty high to play in this system.”

Nobody that was associated with last season’s defense is all that happy or proud with how things turned out. The Lions finished 31st in points allowed (467) and 29th in total yards allowed (6,456). They’ll need improvement at every position next season.

And with all the talk of a “more attacking front” that’s gone on in Allen Park over the last few months, it’s somewhat easy to understand how adding aggression can impact various levels on that side of the ball. Winning at the line of scrimmage usually means more sacks, tackles for loss and pressure on the quarterback — which should, in theory, benefit the defensive backfield.

But what does that mean for the linebackers, a group that Pro Football Focus ranked 28th in the league? They’ll follow suit with what the line is doing, especially in the run game, Sheppard said.

“If one part of the unit is playing a certain way, the rest of the guys have to play accordingly. So with the changes made to the front end you kind of alluded to with the attack style, more aggressive — everybody has to fall in line, especially the group that I have to coach, the linebackers, because we work hand-in-hand in the run game,” Sheppard said.

“Your front does something, and we essentially are gonna read and react off those guys, but it has to be at a tempo that’s aligned with the way the D-line is playing.”

One of the biggest pitfalls that plagued Detroit last year was poor tackling. According to Pro Football Reference, the Lions missed more tackles (132) than any other team in the NFL in 2021, owning a missed-tackle rate of 10.2%. By attacking more and thinking less — as well as dictating the pace of play — some of those issues should be cleared up.

“To me, tackling starts with a mentality. It’s a mindset. It’s a want-to. It’s a willingness,” Sheppard said. “And then after you get to that point, it’s the ability to go and do it physically. But before you get to that point, what I’ve worked on is reconditioning the mind, the mindset — nasty attack style.”

It sounds simple enough, but a big variable in the success of this new scheme will be confidence, Sheppard said. There needs to be a certain conviction from each player that they’ll know exactly what the correct action is in a situation and selling out for it; remaining on the hunt, rather than letting the play come to them.

“I talked to some of our guys that are still around here for this week of practice (and said), ‘Just once you go, you have to know and go. It can’t be a hesitation-type deal,'” Sheppard said during OTAs.

“That’s why time on task, repetition and really building confidence within the reps that they’re going to take and have already took carry over into training camp.”

nbianchi@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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