Training camp battle preview: Balancing youth, experience on the IDL

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How quickly will the Lions’ rookies be asked to contribute? Spoiler: Immediately.

Detroit Lions’ training camp is rapidly approaching, so it’s time to buckle up and get prepared. In this latest edition of POD’s camp battle series, we discuss the interior defensive line.

If you missed any of the previous articles focused on the offensive side of the ball, make sure you check out:

Tim Boyle vs. David Blough for QB2
Is Jermar Jefferson RB3 or will he face competition?
Who will fill the all-important WR4 role?
How many tight ends will make the roster?
Rounding out the offensive line

Setting the table on the interior defensive line

Lions coaches have confirmed their base defense will be 3-4 scheme, but they have also indicated that their front-seven concepts will be strongly influenced by the Los Angeles Rams No. 1 rated defense from 2020. When in base, the Lions will deploy three interior defensive linemen, but when they shift into certain subpackages they will often remove one of the linemen—typically the nose tackle—in favor of a back-seven player.

One of the biggest differences between this scheme and the one previously run by Matt Patricia is the assignments for the defensive line. In the previous two-gapping scheme, interior defensive linemen were asked to occupy blockers to create gaps for linebackers to read and react to. In this one-gapping scheme, the defensive front will be asked to penetrate the offensive line in order to create pressure more often.

With this change in approach, the Lions’ front office needed to overhaul the interior defensive line and made several key moves this offseason. First, they moved on from nose tackles Danny Shelton and John Atkins. Next, they shrewdly traded for Michael Brockers, a leader who is coming from the exact scheme (Rams) they are implementing. And finally, they used Day 2 draft picks on DL Levi Onwuzurike (pick No. 41) and NT Alim McNeill (pick No. 72) to further bolster their front.

Roster Construction

Because the Rams are the model for this defense, we can look at how they built their interior defensive line to get an idea of what Lions’ GM Brad Holmes (who also came from the Rams’ organization) and coach Dan Campbell will do.

In their base, they deployed three starting down linemen as well as a backup for each spot. Here’s a quick breakdown of the roles:

Left defensive end (Brockers): typically lines up at the 4i (over the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle) but will also shift to the 3T (the gap between the guard and tackle) and the 5T (over the outside shoulder of the tackle)

Nose tackle: lines up at the 0 (over the head of the center) or 1-Technique (over the shoulder of the center)

Defensive tackle/end (Aaron Donald): typically lines up at the 3T, but will also move to the 5T, or even the 7T (outside the offensive tackle box)

Here’s a quick visual of one of the base fronts:

Projecting roles/battles

The Lions currently have nine interior defensive linemen and if they follow the Rams’ blueprint, six of them will make the 53-man roster. Three of those spots are locked by with the handpicked additions mentioned earlier: Brockers, Onwuzurike, and McNeill.

Brockers will be expected to step right into his familiar starting role at left defensive end, McNeill was drafted specifically to play the nose and is projected as the starter, while Onwuzurike will challenge returning linemen for the Donald role.

Those pushing Onwuzurike for the final starting spot include former starters Da’Shawn Hand and Nick Williams, as well as third-year UDFA Kevin Strong and last year’s seventh-round pick Jashon Cornell (who is currently suspended for the first three games of the season).

There is an easy argument that Hand is the frontrunner for the starting job, even if it’s in name only. The upside is there, but injuries and poor play have likely made this his last chance to establish himself in Detroit. He is putting in the work this offseason—including working out with Brockers—but he needs to stay healthy and produce. Williams’ disappointed in 2020, but by retaining him there appears to be a plan for him in 2021, even if it’s likely as the backup to Brockers.

Strong is firmly on the roster bubble, but having been a pure one-gapping 3T in college, this scheme is much better suited to his strengths. If he makes the roster, it’ll likely be as a reserve. Cornell is in the exact same boat as Strong, but his looming suspension likely delays the Lions’ decision on him, as he won’t count against the roster count for the first three games.

At the nose, fan-favorite John Penisini and veteran Brian Price will likely be competing against each other to back up McNeill. Penisini’s upside is undeniable and he likely enters camp with the early edge for the role.

Erik’s Projection

The Lions’ have a nice mix of youth with upside and veterans with experience—including four players who started games last season—on their defensive line. With six spots to fill, there will be some talent left on the cutting room floor.

Left defensive end: Brockers should start and Williams has the skill set to be next man up behind him.

Nose tackle: McNeill is projected to start and Penisini has the early edge to back him up.

Defensive tackle/end: Hand and Onwuzurike will probably split this role to open the season, and I’m expecting Hand, as the veteran, to be the de facto starter.

Strong should be a priority for the practice squad, and while the decision on Cornell can wait, he seems headed there as well. Both are talented enough to win a job during the preseason, but for now, they’re stuck on the third team in the rotation.

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