General manager Bob Quinn eluded to the possibility on draft weekend that the Detroit Lions' defensive line might look and play a little different than Lions fans are used to seeing over the last five years.
The trade Thursday of defensive tackle Akeem Spence to the Miami Dolphins for a 2019 draft pick is further evidence of that.
"Our old defensive front was very much one gap and very much get-up-the-field, and I'd say very much less in terms of gap responsibility," Quinn said after the draft.
"So, we are much more, I'd say, conscious of technique, holding our gaps, playing sound fundamentals, rather than just getting up the field."
Quinn said the Lions haven't totally switched to a two-gap system. They want to continue to be mixed in their fronts and be multiple depending on matchups and situation, but they certainly expect to have more elements of the two-gap system in place under new head coach Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.
Patricia is coming from a hybrid New England defensive scheme that typically asked their interior linemen to play a conservative, two-gap approach trying to control blockers, read, and then react.
The Lions signed defensive tackle Sylvester Williams in free agency and drafted Da'Shawn Hand in the fourth round of last week's NFL Draft. Both players are more of the classic two-gap style tackles than Spence, who was more of a rusher, penetrator and get-up-the-field defender from the interior. Spence recorded three sacks last year, and had a positive grade from Pro Football Focus as a pass rusher, but a negative grade against the run.
Williams, on the other hand, didn't record a sack last season in 15 games for the Titans. He had a negative pass-rush grade from PFF, but his run-stopping performance ranked among the top 32 defensive tackles in the league last year.
Strength, technique, being strong at the point of attack and run stuffing ability are all hallmarks of Williams' game. That certainly fits a two-gap system.
The same can be said for Hand, who comes to Detroit fresh out of Alabama's two-gap scheme. His nine sacks in four years certainly don't jump off the stat sheet, but his athleticism and strength allowed him to be pretty good last year controlling gaps, setting the edge and playing the run.
"Big, strong guy, position versatility, can play inside, can play outside," Quinn said of Hand. "Good scheme fit for us. Good knowledge of our defensive line coach (former Alabama defensive line coach Bo Davis), that helped. Knows our technique."
A'Shawn Robinson, Detroit's returning starter at defensive tackle and a former teammate of Hand's running the same two-gap system in Alabama, earned a positive grade from PFF as both a pass rusher and run defender in 2017. He's big and strong with athletic traits, and recorded 53 tackles from the interior a season ago.
See the trend here?
"We want a big, strong, tough, physical team in the trenches," Quinn said. "So, that's my job to kind of fill those roles in terms of the player side, and then it's Matt and his coaches to kind of implement that style in terms of scheme. So, it was an emphasis and I think so far, so good."
The trading of Spence does leave the Lions a little thin along the interior of their defensive line. The current defensive tackle group consists of Robinson, Williams, Hand, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Christian Ringo and Toby Johnson. Those numbers could be boosted by the undrafted rookie free agent class coming in for next weekend's rookie minicamp.
Quinn has also said he's not done building the roster through free agency. There are still some veteran free-agent defensive tackles on the market who might be fits for how the Lions want to remake the middle of their defensive line.
"Yeah, there's a few vets that we've been talking to the last couple weeks, so I think we'll revisit some of those conversations," Quinn said. "Just because the draft's over doesn't mean the needs are done, you know.
"Like I always say, there's free agents out there, there's street guys, we're setting up tryouts for rookie minicamp, so we're always trying to churn the roster. There's guys available."
Expect any interior defensive lineman the Lions bring in to have more of the traits of a two-gap defensive tackle, which are size, strength, technically sound, can stand up at the point of attack and good against the run. Those seem to be the features the Lions are looking for in the middle of their defensive line.