When writing a preview of the 2015 Detroit Lions upcoming defensive outlook, it’s difficult to start anywhere other than with the departure of Ndamukong Suh, who left via free agency to join the Miami Dolphins this season. Suh signed a six year, $114 million contract, of which $60 million is guaranteed.
A Ford Field favorite, and nemesis to the rest of the NFL, replacing Suh is a difficult, but not impossible task. In 2014, the Lions defense had the second-lowest yards per game average against with 300.9. Only the Seattle Seahawks gave up fewer yards per game (267.1). Detroit also ranked 3rd in fewest points per game allowed by the defense, at 17.6 PPG.
Suh had 53 tackles (44 solo) of the Lions 724 total tackles last year, which equates to 7% of the team’s tackles. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that other teams ran and passed AWAY from Suh. Lions defenders recorded 42 sacks last season–Suh had 8.5 of them. Important to note, is that Suh never forced one fumble last year. The defense had seven more takeaways that the offense had giveaways last year, and Suh didn’t figure prominently in any of the 11 forced fumbles, or 20 interceptions (Lions tied for 3rd in the NFL last year in that category).
Enter DT Haloti Ngata, who was acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens in March of this year. Ngata, who is as versatile as he can be dominant, forced two fumbles last year, had two interceptions, but had 22 less tackles than Suh (although Ngata played in only 12 games last year). His versatility is going to allow Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to provide multiple defensive line schemes for opponents to face this season.
Although when Ngata was signed, many football experts assumed the Lions would switch from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 with Ngata at nose tackle, head coach Jim Caldwell stated there would be no drastic changes for the Lions defense to start the season.
Other than Suh, Detroit also lost DT Nick Fairley to St. Louis, and traded DE George Johnson and a 7th round 2015 pick for a 5th 2015 pick in which the Lions drafted FB Mike Burton. Also missing from last year’s squad will be DT C.J. Mosley and CB Cassius Vaughn who are both unsigned at present time.
Here is a look at the positions and current depth chart, including who is projected to make the opening day roster:
Jason Jones should start at left defensive end, while Ziggy Ansah should start opposite Jones at right defensive end. In the middle, Ngata and Tyrunn Walker (whom the Lions signed as a free agent from New Orleans) can play either tackle position, and the Lions will move Ngata around to keep opponents on their toes.
Other Lions trying to solidify spots at the defensive end position are Devin Taylor, Larry Webster, Xavier Proctor, as well as Darryl Trapp, whom the Lions re-signed this off-season.
Detroit signed rookie Gabe Wright from Auburn in the 4th round of this year’s draft. He and Caraun Reid are looking to provide depth to the defensive tackle position. Jermelle Cudjo and Kerry Hyder, whom the Lions signed as free agents, (Cudjo from Kansas City and Hyder from the Jets) will be battling with Roy Philon to make the 53-man roster as reserve tackles.
The linebacking corps returns almost completely intact, with the two exceptions being OLB Brandon Copeland, whom Detroit signed as a free agent from Tennessee, and MLB Kevin Snyder, an undrafted rookie free agent.
There are some pre-season injury concerns, as MLB Stephen Tulloch, who missed the rest of last season after tearing his ACL celebrating a play, and OLB DeAndre Levy (who missed out on earlier OTA’s) are still not 100%, but should be come the start of the season.
The linebackers projected to make the team are: Tulloch, Levy, second-year OLB Kyle Van Noy, OLB Josh Bynes, and MLB’s Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis. Those who may not make it past the pre-season include linebackers Julian Stanford, Jerrell Harris, and the aforementioned Copeland and Snyder.
The starting defensive backs should be Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis at cornerback, James Ihedigbo at strong safety, and Glover Quin at free safety. The Lions drafted some help in the defensive backfield this year, signing corner Alex Carter in the 3rd round, and corner Quandre Diggs in the 6th round. Diggs should give returning Lions nickelback Nevin Lawson (who is nursing a dislocated foot) a run for Lawson’s job in nickel sets.
Josh Wilson, a free agent signing out of Atlanta can solidify a back-up corner role, and Isa Abdul-Quddus and Don Carey are looking to win roles as back-up safties. Seisay Mohammed, Nate Ness, free agent signee Taylor Mays (from Miami), and undrafted rookies Brian Suite and Isaiah Johnson should be looking to make the Lions practice squad, or get picked-up elsewhere.
As a unit, the Lions fared very well defensively last season. As stated previously, only Seattle allowed fewer yards per game. The defense created more turnovers than the offense created, they tied for 8th in the league in sacks with 42, and most importantly, only allowed 17.6 points per game, which would help keep any team with a decent offense in contention to win.
There will be growing pains with Ngata taking the spotlight from Suh, but for the most part, the defense is intact. Nick Fairley was a bust for the Lions, as he combined on 14 tackles last year, and had one sack. “Doom and gloom” is not the answer on the defensive side of the ball.
Games against the Seahawks, Broncos, two against the Packers, and possibly the Thanksgiving game against the Eagles should be this unit’s biggest tests. Conversely, the defensive side of the ball should shine against the likes of the Cardinals, the Raiders, the 49ers, and two games against the Bears. Look for the Lions defense to be a top-10 defense in key categories again this year.