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Season Preview: Secondary

A year after overhauling the secondary the Lions cleaned house again this past offseason.  Only five defensive backs from the 2009 roster remain on the 2010 roster, and of those only Louis Delmas is guaranteed a spot on the team.

2009 was a rough season for the secondary as the Lions defense finished last in the league vs. the pass.  The Lions allowed opposing quarterbacks to put up a passer rating of 107.0, surrendered 35 passing touchdowns and allowed at 68.1% completion percentage, all the worst marks in the league.

The secondary had it’s problems, but the Lions’ inability to maintain pressure on the quarterback compounded those issues.  A younger revamped secondary paired with a remade defensive line could allow the Lions to significantly improve their pass defense in 2010, but questions remain.

The highest profile addition to the Lions secondary was the acquisition of cornerback Chris Houston from the Falcons.  Houston has tons of natural ability and talent, but he is far from a finished product as a cornerback.  Houston has elite speed, great agility and is surprisingly strong, but he has not shown the ball skills that separate athletes from football players. 

Ball skills are usually referred to in terms of intercepting passes, but that is only part of the equation.  A defensive back needs to be able to locate the football in the air, while maintaining his speed and position on the receiver.  He then has to be able to position himself to break up the pass, intercept the pass or knock the ball loose from the receiver.

Houston will step right into a starting role and one of his draft classmates may be joining him in the starting lineup. 

Jonathan Wade was a third round pick of the Rams that fell out of favor after a new coaching staff came in.  Wade shares many of Houston’s strengths as far as size, speed and quickness go.  He also has similar weaknesses as far as ball skills and harnessing his potential.  Wade has been the most consistent of the Lions corners during the offseason, drawing praise from the coaching staff.  At worst he appears to be the starting nickel corner.

Amari Spievey got off to a rocky start this offseason as he was hampered by injuries and took a little while to get up to speed, but started to come around in OTAs.  Spievey is a physical cornerback with average speed but he understands zone coverage schemes and hits like a truck.  He is expected to compete for a starting job in training camp, but the coaching staff wants him to get a lot of time in the defense.

The most surprising addition to the secondary had to be the return of Dre Bly.  Bly is a veteran player with a proven track record, but he is on the decline physically.  Dre could be competing for a starting position in camp is Wade or Spievey falter, but Bly is a major liability in run defense so the coaches desperately want to keep him in a nickel or dime role.

Eric King was the starting nickel corner last year for the Lions and played for Coach Schwartz in Tennessee in 2007 and 2008.  He found himself on IR early in the season so we didn’t see much from him in 2009.  King is fighting for the fifth cornerback spot with Aaron Berry, Jonathan Hefney and Jack Williams.

Berry has stood out so far in training camp while Hefney is splitting time at nickel, corner and safety.  Williams is still on the PUP after tearing his ACL on his first snap of the season.

The safety position has one starter settled in Louis Delmas while five other players could be competing for the strong safety position.

Delmas set an NFL rookie record by scoring on a fumble return, interception return and recording a safety.  He is a fierce tackler with a nose for the ball and excellent range in coverage.  He will solidify himself as one of the best young safeties in the league if he has another productive season like last year.  Delmas had taken a leadership role in only his second year and he will make all the secondary calls as a second year player.

The strong safety position is Ko Simpson’s to lose, which he is doing while he recovers from microfracture knee surgery.  Simpson is a solid all around player that doesn’t excel in any one phase of the game.  He was just starting to come on last season when he hurt his knee and was placed in IR.

CC Brown is another starting candidate at strong safety as he comes off a disappointing year with the Giants.  Brown had difficulty in coverage and was benched after surrendering multiple big plays.  Brown is a traditional strong safety that is stout against the run but is limited in coverage.  Schwartz prefers to have interchangeable safeties rather than a strong and free, so the defense will have to adjust to cover Brown’s weakness in coverage if he does start.

Marvin White is in the same mold as Brown but his coverage miscues were often mental breakdowns resulting in busted coverages.  he has a lot to prove in camp if he wants to make the team.

Dante Wesley was just converted to safety a few days ago after primarily playing cornerback in the offseason.  He is a special teams ace and a favorite of special teams coach Danny Crossman.  He should make the roster because of his position flexibility and special teams play.

The newest addition to the secondary is Randy Phillips, an undrafted rookie free agent.  Phillips was a highly touted recruit out of high school whose college career was derailed by injuries.  He received a medical hardship fifth season of eligibility in 2009 but tore his labrum and only played in nine games.  Phillips has the raw ability to be a find for the Lions, but he has to stay healthy.

The Lions obvioulsy need the pass defense to improve drastically if they are going to improve as a team, but the improvement will be a joint venture between the secondary and defensive line.  The line has to not only supply a strong pass rush, but control the line of scrimmage against the run to force opponents into obvious passing downs.

The Lions’ 2009 secondary additions were primarily older veteran players with limited upside, the 2010 additions were mostly young players with unrealized potential.  The onus is on the coaching staff and the players to tap that potential.

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