LIONS INSIDER

NOTEBOOK: Linebacker play; sacks vs. pressures and facing the zone blitz

Posted Nov 15, 2013

The play of linebackers Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Ashlee Palmer has been key to the Lions defense all season

There is a comfort level that comes with playing in the same system next to the same players.

Stephen Tulloch and Ashlee PalmerLinebackers Stephen Tulloch and Ashlee Palmer (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

It’s well documented how significant the change in personnel has been on the Detroit Lions defense this year. New defensive ends, cornerbacks and safeties have all had to learn to play in a new scheme with new teammates.

The stability at the linebacker position, however, has been the glue keeping it all together.

Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Ashlee Palmer have been together in this scheme for three years now and it shows in the way they are playing.

"When you have guys together for a long period of time you can build a chemistry with each other," Tulloch said. "I think me and Levy have really had a chance to learn the ins and outs of each other; where the other is going to be on a certain play or call, and how to help each other out. We’ve gained that bond with each other and have been able to trust each other."

Tulloch, Levy and Palmer have combined for 160 tackles, six interceptions, 10 passes defended and two sacks. The Lions currently rank seventh in the NFL in rushing defense.

"I think that’s the best I’ve seen that duo play," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said of Tulloch and Levy’s performance last week in Chicago after they combined for 12 tackles, a tackle-for-loss and an interception.

"And actually Ashlee Palmer played really well too. He made a tough play on the first play of the game. Rocky McIntosh goes in and he did it again last week and made a great play on that fourth down. (Linebacker coach) Matt’s (Burke) done a good job with those guys and they’re growing in the right direction."

The linebacker play has been strong all season long for the Lions and the conversation now extends from the front four, to the front seven, when talking about the strength of this Lions defense.

BEYOND THE SACKS

Look at the team sack totals in the NFL and something doesn’t seem right about the Lions ranking 29th in the league with just 15. Only the Bears (14), Giants (14) and Jaguars (12) have fewer.

While Cunningham would certainly like that total to be higher, he says sack totals aren’t the end-all-be-all statistic in determining pressure.

"I love statistics, I really do," he said. "I think I should’ve probably been a numbers guys and gotten out of this game a few years back. I probably wouldn’t have as many gray hairs.

"There is a site called Pro Football Focus, which is magnificent. If you look at that we are like third in pass rush. By sacks we are like last. The idea is the pressure rush and to get the quarterback to throw bad balls and get off the field on third down."

Making a quarterback move from his spot, disrupting the timing of a play and winning on third down are all factors Cunningham looks at in determining sufficient pressure from week-to-week. It isn’t always about sacks.

The Lions had just two sacks last week in Chicago, but registered 34 pressures in a 21-19 win.

"We hit the quarterback 15 times last week," Cunningham said. "The idea of rushing passer is to get the quarterback off his set-up. When he hits that back foot and comes around to throw, let’s make him move and we made him move. I saw early on that we were going to be pretty good at it last week and hopefully that will continue."

Ndamukong Suh leads the Lions with 4.5 sacks, but they’ve gotten only six sacks from the defensive end position. That needs to get better.

"Anytime you can be disruptive and move that quarterback around… it’s not a problem until he sits in that spot and doesn’t move and guns you down," defensive end Willie Young said.

Young said the ultimate goal is still the sack, as he loves his sack celebration, but the next best thing is disrupting the timing and forcing an incompletion or interception. Winning is nice too. Young was sure to point out the fact the Lions are 6-3.

DIFFERENT TEST

Detroit’s young offensive linemen trio of Riley Reiff, Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle will get their first live look at Dick LeBeau’s zone-blitz scheme in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

"It’s a different kind of challenge then the last couple of weeks we have had," head coach Jim Schwartz said of playing straight 4-3 teams recently. "You have to sort some things out. There are different matchups and things like that.

"They’ve made their reputation over a long period of time by creating negative plays, by getting turnovers, by sacking the quarterback, by getting lost-yardage runs and we’ll have to avoid those things. If we can avoid negative plays and keep the offense on track, we’ll have a good chance."

The hardest part for young lineman when playing a LeBeau coached defense is that it isn’t always cut and dry where the pressure will come from. How fast these young guys can think on their feet will go a long way to quarterback Matthew Stafford staying upright most of the game.

EXTRA POINTS

Nick Fairley was fined $15,750 for throwing an opponent to the ground last week in Chicago. Willie Young was fined $15,750 for roughing the passer.