After their abysmal 48-45 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions head coach, Dan Campbell, hinted at a new role for Aidan Hutchinson in the coming weeks. Campbell played coy with what those changes might be and in the first half of their game against the New England Patriots, the defense actually played much better. They were able to get off the field, holding the Patriots to only field goals and a defensive touchdown in the first half.
With the bye week upon us, it was imperative to get a feel for what those defensive changes might be, specifically as it relates to the #2 overall pick in last year's draft. Through five games Hutchinson has 3 sacks (all against the Commanders), 8 tackles, and 15 total QB pressures (3 hits, 9 pressures, to go along with the sacks). Some in the media around town are worried about Hutchinson because he hasn't had an “impact” on games yet, though having reviewed the tape from the past 5 weeks, you would be hard-pressed to say he hasn't been worth that #2 overall pick.
What's the new role for Aidan Hutchinson?
A film review is just what the doctor ordered for this type of undertaking. In comparing Weeks 1-4 and then Week 5 film, there were a couple of things that stuck out as far as alignment and positioning went for Hutch.
Week's 1-4 Alignment & Positioning
Anyone who has been around football for any amount of time knows that defenses always make their alignments based on what they determine to be the “strong side” of the offense. Oftentimes, this is determined by the tight end, amount of receivers on one side of the ball, or in a spread formation (2X2 wideouts) the running back will often determine the strength call.
This is not a hard-and-fast fact, but the majority of snaps that Aidan Hutchinson took during Weeks 1-4 were on the strong side of the defense. This put Hutchinson in the position to have to fight through a tackle and either a tight end or a running back.
Now, while there is a huge adjustment from the college game to the NFL, the Lions coaching staff I think expected Hutchinson to be able to fight through these double teams much more effectively than he did through the first four games.
Ideally, you want someone like Hutchinson to be your anchor on the strong side of your defense, but his build and athleticism lend him more toward a dominating force opposite the strong side of the offense. According to his prospect profile:
Defensive end prospect with a can't-miss combination of football character, skill and physical traits who is more likely to contend for occasional Pro Bowls than become an All-Pro playmaker. Hutchinson's strength and flexion allows him to drop a deep anchor and set a very firm edge, and that is unlikely to change as a pro whether he's used in 4-3 or 3-4 fronts. He can be too mechanical, engaging in cursory contact rather than using his hands to whip the man in front of him quickly. Hutchinson is an instinctive rusher, assailing the pocket with a non-stop barrage of activity. His hands are skilled and efficient to grease the edge while fluid counter steps open inside paths to the pocket. He needs to add a few more items to his rush menu in order to maintain his rush production against NFL tackles. Hutchinson is scheme versatile and should be a very good starter with a very high floor, but his ceiling might not be as elevated as some of the talent he's been compared to.By Lance Zierlein, NFL Analyst, NFL.com
It must be noted, however, that the Lion's coaching staff was not just setting him up on the strong side and saying, “Go get 'em, kid.” They were actually stunting and flexing him in different positionings along the line to help create pressure. Most notably, they would move him and Charles Harris to the same side of the ball and run games with them twisting in and out to try to create more pressure and havoc.
It is, or was thought, best to get Hutch moving along the line of scrimmage, to create bad matchups. However, in these situations too often Hutch was getting washed inside and doubled by multiple interior linemen. In these weeks, according to Pro Football Focus, Hutch averaged a weekly grade of 58.4. Definitely, something needed to change.
New role for Aidan Hutchinson and its impact in Week 5
There was a change that definitely needed to be made. Going into their game against the Patriots there were talks of finding a new role for Aidan Hutchinson, especially finding ways to get him in a more effective spot to make bigger impacts in the game. They made a change and though only one game of sample size, it seems to have been the right move.
In the game against the Pats, Hutchinson was not moved inside of other defensive linemen and spent the majority of his snaps on the weak side of the formation–away from the tight end.
Notice where the tight end is lined up in relation to Aidan? Notice how wide Aidan is lined up outside the tackle? For the majority of the game, Hutch was in this weak side, wide-9 alignment, and played quite well. Notice the jump in his PFF grade:
Now, while it's true that the box score wasn't bursting at the seams with this adjustment, the grade does speak for itself. Only registering 1 QB hurry and 2 tackles seems like a bad game in the boxscore. But in the review of the film, Hutchinson did a great job staying disciplined in the screen game, making plays inside on running plays, and overall played very, very well.
Now, it does bear noting that with this wider angle, and depending on the responsibility the coaches have called for him, Hutch has to find a way to steepen his rush angle. Being quick off the ball is fantastic, but not if it is getting you pushed up higher than the quarterback on your rush angle, allowing tackles to continue to just ride you higher than you planned to be.
With the adjustment that Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn made after week four, there is a reason to believe that for Aidan Hutchinson it will be an effective move. The key will be to continue grading out well and hoping that other players along the line and in the front seven can start to raise their level of play and make plays as Aidan draws attention away from them. For a league-worst defense, making a change was necessary hopefully it will continue to pay off.