DETROIT — Stephen Tulloch is quite short, so short that mischievous teammates take joy in hiding his valuables in the back of the top shelf in his locker. A flood of panic overtook the Lions’ 5-10 middle linebacker Thursday night at Ford Field, when after a lopsided Week 3 preseason win over the Patriots, he couldn’t find a jewelry bag stuffed with untold riches.
“I know somebody didn’t snatch my jewelry bag,” said Tulloch, incredulous.
Two anxious minutes later, he hopped on a chair and discovered the ruse.
“Really?” he said, “That’s how y’all gonna’ do me?”
You can hide a lot of things from Tulloch if you’re tall enough. You can’t hide what’s in front of him: The Lions are on the verge of fixing their biggest problem. A lack of edge pressure doomed the Lions’ already dubious 2012 prospects, and fixing that problem, Tulloch says, has become the undertaking of a head coach trying to save his job and a general manager finally fostering consistency.
Take Detroit’s four biggest defensive failures of a 4-12 finish in 2012. The Titans won 44-41 in Week 3; the Texans, 34-31 in Week 12; the Colts, 35-33 a week later; and the Cardinals, 38-10 in Week 15. The common thread? A weak pass rush. Pending free agent end Cliff Avril and an aging Kyle Vanden Bosch managed a combined three sacks, three hits and five hurries in those games. Avril was hot and cold, getting shut out against the Cardinals and Titans. Vanden Bosch was a ghost, playing right end without a sack.
“You’ve got to realize,” Tulloch says, “whenever you have guys on one-year deals or guys that aren’t going to be around for a long time, you don’t get that consistency that you need. I’m not knocking those guys; they’re great players. But when you have guys who are locked into contracts and you know they’re going to be there, you can work together and understand the scheme.”
In the offseason, the Lions staff was forced to part ways with Vanden Bosch and his legendary work ethic. It was a hard thing—coach Jim Schwartz, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and assistant coaches Kris Kocurek and Jim Washburn were at his wedding weeks after the 34-year-old was released. The Lions offered Avril a contract, but eventually let him walk for a two-year, $13 million deal with the Seahawks. To replace them, general manager Martin Mayhew picked up BYU football neophyte Ziggy Ansah with his first-round pick and former Seahawks and Titans DT Jason Jones in free agency, with the idea that he could be converted to end. Additionally, Tulloch says coach Schwartz has taken a bigger role in the defensive planning than in any of his four seasons as coach.
“We have some good additions,” Tulloch says, “and now I think coach Schwartz is a little bit more involved in the defense, putting us in good situations, knowing when to blitz, when not to blitz, when to change personnel, pass rushers vs. run stoppers, and I think we’re doing a good job this year of putting the right players on the field and creating pressure.”
The shift in the planning stage will be more apparent when the regular season begins, but the early grade on the personnel moves is favorable. Jones was not dynamic but solid in his first two preseason games while still acclimating to end, but against the Patriots, he looked like a natural. Lined up on the outside shoulder of Pats right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, Jones was successful in collapsing pockets for the better part of the first quarter before kicking it into another gear in the second. He was the beneficiary of some inside pressure from teammate Ndamukong Suh on a 2nd-and-6, bringing down a bothered Tom Brady for a nine-yard loss. Late in the quarter, Jones flew off the ball on 1st-and-10 and beat Vollmer with a speed rush, grabbing Brady with his outstretched 36.5-inch right arm and tossing him for a 10-yard loss.
“We got Tom Brady rattled,” Jones said. “We got their offense into 1st-and-15s instead of 2nd-and-1s and that’s what we wanted to do.” Jones says he’s 280 pounds after playing at 260 during his Seahawks stint. He says he’s spent most of his time in practice on pass rushing. Watching him Thursday, it was hard to believe somebody thought this guy was a tackle.
As it happens, that somebody was Washburn, a friend of Cunningham’s and the Titans’ defensive line coach for 12 seasons before a stint with the Eagles and, beginning this season, the Lions. Washburn and staff saw a tackle in the 6-5, 276-pound Eastern Michigan entrant of the 2008 draft. At the time, Cunningham, a Chiefs coordinator, saw a left end.
“Fifteen years later,” Cunningham said during training camp, “Wash finally told me I was right about something.”
On the other end of the line, the prognosis on Ansah is less clear. His bull rush was largely ineffective against left tackle Nate Solder, who graded out as the 16th best pass-blocking left tackle in football last season by Pro Football Focus. Ansah did manage three pressures of Brady coming on speed rushes without sacrificing his presence in the run game. He has been decidedly better than Vanden Bosch, and the combination of Jones, Suh, Nick Fairley and Ansah seemed to eliminate the seven-step drops in New England’s playbook. If all four players can carry over this kind of performance to the regular season, it will do wonders for Cunningham and his maligned secondary.
A close examination of those four losses from 2012 (via PFF) reveals Cunningham’s gameplan when his line is failing. Bucking the league average of blitzing on 31% of plays, Cunningham backed off the best passing teams—blitzing 8.2% of the time vs. Indianapolis and 5.9% vs. Houston—and threw impotent haymakers at the worst passing teams, blitzing Arizona 44% of the time and Tennessee 40% of the time and leaving his corners on an island. In the end, none of it worked. A year prior, amid a 10-6 finish, a playoff berth and the heyday of Vanden Bosch and Avril, Cunningham blitzed the best and worse passing teams in the NFL near equal amounts: Against Oakland, Minnesota, Atlanta and Green Bay, he sent more than four rushers 25-30% of the time.
“Obviously we run our defense on our defensive line,” says safety Louis Delmas. “When one of those guys goes down, that hurts; We try to play it cool. Once they get rolling though, we can blitz whoever we want.”
Thursday’s performance solidified in Delmas the feeling that this defense has turned a corner. The game’s similarity to a 34-10 preseason waxing of the Patriots in 2011, has Delmas thinking playoffs.
“Back then we had a team that influenced each individual into doing their own jobs,” he says. “Now we are doing the same and I’m confident that we have a great shot at the playoffs. I know it’s early to say that, but I know if we continue to hold ourselves accountable, we have a shot.”