Friday, November 1, 2013
Midseason review: Linebackers
By Michael Rothstein
This week, during Detroit’s bye, we’ll take a look at each position group at the half way point of the season.
Prior reviews: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers; Tight ends; Offensive line; Defensive line
What has worked: Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy is having the best season of his career, and it might not be close. He is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with four and has 63 tackles -- on pace for a career-best 126 stops. That 47 of those have been solo tackles (almost reaching last year’s total of 56) has been even more impressive.
What goes unnoticed sometimes about Levy is his ability to sniff out short passes and screens. Pro Football Focus grades Levy as the top linebacker in the league in coverage. His ability to move from sideline to sideline and wrap tackles in the open field are among the things he has done quite well this season.
Levy’s season, in some ways, is overshadowing what middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch has done. He is on pace to match his production from the last two seasons, when he had 112 and 111 tackles, and as the middle linebacker has been the man in control of a lot of the Lions' decisions and on-field calls.
Like Levy, Tulloch has been better against the pass than the run, intercepting a pass and notching two sacks. The two sacks are impressive because neither Levy nor Tulloch are sent to blitz all that much.
Ashlee Palmer, the Lions’ third linebacker, is on pace to play more snaps than he ever has. He already has more tackles -- 17 -- than he has had in any season other than 2010, when he had 43 tackles in 318 snaps.
What has not: Depth is a major issue here; although both Tulloch and Levy have been healthy throughout their careers, the Lions don’t have much in the way of replacements. Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead are young and don’t play much, if at all, on defense; it's unclear how well they would perform if they were needed to play more than special teams.
Rocky McIntosh has some experience, but is clearly a fourth linebacker at this point and is not at the level of Levy or Tulloch.
Much like with the defensive line, run defense here is also an issue. The Lions are allowing 108.5 rushing yards a game and 4.74 yards per carry. That can be pinned on both the front four and the linebackers, especially when the front four is often charged with reaching the quarterback.
Prognosis: Levy is putting together a Pro Bowl-caliber season; if the Lions are going to make a playoff run, they need him to continue at his current level. As mentioned in the defensive-line review, Detroit may have to start blitzing more if Ndamukong Suh & Co. can’t finish sacks. As long as the defensive line is getting pressure, though, Levy and Tulloch should be the beneficiaries of poor decisions by opposing quarterbacks, much as they have been during the first half of the season.
If anything, one of the other concerns would be when one of them gets lined up in coverage and the defensive line can’t reach the quarterback. This was particularly a problem against Cincinnati, when Jermaine Gresham had four catches for 64 yards.
Some of these things, though, are highly speculative. If Levy and Tulloch can perform in the second half of the season as they did in the first, the Lions would gladly take that.
Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in compiling this report.