A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press, here.
Through eight games, the Detroit Lions defense sits atop the NFL in nearly every meaningful statistic. Football Outsiders has the Lions defense ranked first against the run, second versus pass and first in total defense. Most importantly, the Lions are first in scoring defense, allowing just 15.8 points per game. You can make a case that the best player on the best defense is the much-heralded Ndamukong Suh. However like many others, you’d be overlooking 6-foot-2, 235 pound outside linebacker DeAndre Levy.
A third round selection out of Wisconsin in 2009, the Lions chose to re-sign Levy after the 2012 season and let the team’s other outside linebacker, Justin Durant, leave town. Regarded as a solid yet unspectacular player at the time, Levy rejoined the Lions on a three-year, $9.75 million contract. One and a half seasons later, Levy is regarded as one of the best linebackers in the game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Levy graded out as the fourth best linebacker out of 132 qualifying linebackers in coverage for 2013. Quarterbacks had a 57.5 passer rating with one touchdown and six interceptions when throwing his way. Only Seattle’s star cornerback Richard Sherman surpassed Levy’s six interceptions. He also set career highs with 119 total tackles and 15 passes defended. In his first four NFL seasons before last year’s breakout campaign, Levy had compiled 13 total passes defended and five picks. Though he was snubbed from the Pro Bowl, Levy’s play was recognized by his peers, who ranked him as the 59th best player after the season.
Tough and reliable, Levy is one of only two linebackers this season to have played every defensive snap for his team (Detroit native and former Lion Larry Foote is the other). Let’s break down the All-22 tape to see what makes Levy such a dangerous defender.
In last year’s matchup against the Browns, Cleveland sends running back Chris Ogbonnaya on a wheel route with Levy responsible for him in man coverage. Levy showcases the total package on this play, displaying his speed (he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at his college pro day), smarts, athleticism and ball skills.
It’s third-and-four so in this situation, many linebackers might jump the route thinking Ogbonnaya is running short in order to pick up the first down. Levy doesn’t bite and takes a high angle to keep his leverage, which allows him to stay on top of Ogbonnaya as he turns his route upfield.
As the play develops, Levy accomplishes a difficult task that many defenders are often incapable of doing: he turns his head to find the football. Levy is now in perfect position if Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden were to throw the ball to his running back.
Fortunately for the Lions, Weeden decides to pull the trigger. Levy does an excellent job of catching the football at its highest point and shows off his astonishing athleticism by out-jumping Ogbonnaya to record the interception.
Check out this play by Levy earlier in the game. The Browns fool the Lions with a reverse to speed demon Travis Benjamin (he ran 4.32 40-yard dash at the 2012 combine). Levy lines up at left outside linebacker on the opposite side of the field and showcases incredible speed and hustle to track down Benjamin after a 45-yard gain.
As soon as Levy realizes Benjamin has the ball, he immediately starts sprinting. At this point it looks like Benjamin has a chance to score.
Excellent job by Levy to avoid traffic and take a high angle to the football. No analysis necessary.
This season, Levy has taken another step in his quest to become a complete player. After struggling at times in the past against the run, he has graded out as the league’s best linebacker versus the run according to Pro Football Focus.
PFF describes a run stop as “what we judge to be tackles that prevent an offensive success, defined as gaining 40 percent of required yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, and the entire required yardage on third or fourth.”
Facing the vaunted Green Bay offense in Week 3 this season, Levy illustrated his prowess against the run in helping the Lions shutdown the Packers, 19-7. Against its own goal-line, Green Bay comes out with two tight ends hoping to create a little breathing room. They use an off tackle run with running back Eddie Lacy following right guard T.J. Lang between the tackle and tight end into the ‘c’ gap. The tight end will kick-out to block defensive end Jason Jones, the right tackle will block down to pin defensive tackle C.J. Mosley to the inside, while Lang is responsible for Levy.
As quarterback Aaron Rodgers turns to handoff to Lacy, Levy immediately recognizes the play and starts to move towards the line of scrimmage. As designed, Lang (No. 70) is out in front and looks to have Levy in his sights with a potential running lane opening up if executed correctly.
Yet Levy has other plans. Lang doesn’t account for the linebacker’s speed and barely touches Levy as he shoots past Lang like a missile. Lacy hasn’t even taken two steps before Levy blows up the play in the backfield.
This play illustrates excellent team defense. Mosley defeats his block and Jones does his job by driving the tight end into Lacy’s desired path, while Levy trucks the 230-pound back for the safety.
Fast-forward to the fourth quarter with the game on the line. With seven minutes remaining, the Lions lead 19-7 as the Packers face a crucial fourth-and-five deep in Lions territory. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin asks Levy to cover Jordy Nelson, arguably a top five receiver in the league, one-on-one in the slot. Normally, it’s an unthinkable strategy to purposely deploy a linebacker in man coverage against any wide receiver, let alone a player the caliber of Nelson. However, Levy isn’t an ordinary ‘backer.
Aaron Rodgers recognizes this matchup pre-snap and actually mouths ‘post’ over to Nelson, who’ll take an outside release before snapping his route back inside to the post.
Levy maintains good leverage by staying to the inside, and although Nelson is able to gain a step on Levy, the ball ends up being thrown behind the receiver falling incomplete.
Levy’s speed and smarts consistently allows him to avoid offensive lineman and make impact plays in both the run and pass game. His standout performance is one of the main reasons why the defense is excelling this season. If the defense continues its spectacular play, non-Lion fans will surely recognize Levy’s game and give him that elusive Pro-Bowl nod.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.