The return of (real) linebackers to Detroit

September, 22, 2011
9/22/11
12:45
PM ET
There was little evidence of a looming rout midway through the first quarter last Sunday at Ford Field. The Kansas City Chiefs had amassed 64 rushing yards on their opening drive, and the Detroit Lions were clinging to a 7-3 when the Chiefs took over for their second possession. What happened next provides an instructive illustration of the Lions' new defensive layer.

[+] EnlargeStephen Tulloch
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiStephen Tulloch is part of a revamped Lions linebacking corps that's taken some of the pressure off the defensive line.
Outside linebacker Justin Durant was involved in three tackles over the next six plays. One held Chiefs running back Thomas Jones to a three-yard gain. Another limited Dexter McCluster to a two-yard gain after middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch forced McCluster to change directions at the line of scrimmage.

Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy, meanwhile, combined with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to stop Jones for no gain. And Tulloch dropped receiver Jerheme Urban two yards shy of the first-down marker on third-and-8, forcing place-kicker Ryan Succop to attempt a 44-yard field goal.

Succop's kick sailed wide left, and the Lions never looked back in a 48-3 victory.

I won't suggest that Durant, Tulloch and Levy sparked the biggest regular-season victory in team history. But they played their part, especially in slowing down the Chiefs running game on that second drive.

I realize that Chiefs starter Jamaal Charles was already gone from the game after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Regardless, it's been a while since Lions linebackers so much as did their part. On a relative scale, what we saw last Sunday stood out like a new era. Durant finished the game with a team-high 11 tackles and Levy was second with seven. I gave them some additional props in our weekly NFC 411 video below.

"Bringing in Durant, Stephen Tulloch and having a healthy DeAndre Levy, we know we have good linebackers," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "I think our front seven is much improved, mainly because the linebackers are much improved."

As you might know, all three of the Lions' Week 1 starters last season -- Julian Peterson, Landon Johnson and Zack Follett -- are out of football in 2011. Neither Durant, Tulloch nor Levy have so much as one Pro Bowl between them. But through two games, we can safely say the Lions no longer have a defense that counts solely on its disruptive defensive line to carry them.

"It's funny to watch them ... come here and translate and seamlessly make the change," Suh said of Tulloch and Durant, whom the Lions signed as free agents in August. "They're great players. They bring great character and atmosphere, and it only helps because they understand what we're working for and how we play up front."

In an ideal world, the linebacker trio will one day make offenses think twice about double-teaming Suh or another Lions defensive linemen. "But even if they're not getting those double-teams off us," Suh said, "they're going to be back there making plays."

Even a decent linebacker can be pretty good behind a defensive line like the Lions'. If nothing else, that's what we've seen in two weeks from the Lions. It's at least part of the explanation for a defense that has limited opponents to a combined 23 points, the second-best mark in the NFL. Based on total yardage, the Lions have the NFL's No. 7 defense. Those numbers are tangible progress.

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