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Cowboys vs. Lions: Previewing Detroit’s Defensive Personnel

A look at the defensive strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys' Week 16 opponent.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

In the final home regular season game of the year the Detroit Lions will visit AT&T Stadium. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their defensive personnel.

Defensive Line

Coming into the year the clear headliner of this group was former top-five pick at defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, a Pro Bowler in 2015 after putting up 14.5 sacks. Ansah looked to be well on his way to becoming one of the best in the league with an impressive blend of size, strength and speed off the edge, although he has struggled with injuries in 2016 and surprisingly has just one sack. He has only missed three games, but his snap count is down significantly due to the nagging injuries. He still maintains his role as the “starter” but his playing time has decreased significantly.

In his absence, a player who entered the league in 2014 and spent a few years bouncing around on practice-squads has emerged as one of the surprise stories of the year throughout the league. That player is Kerry Hyder, a former Texas Tech Red Raider who I’m sure many Cowboys fans are familiar with. After barely even playing a regular season snap prior to 2016 Hyder has broken out as one of the better pass rushers in the league this season with eight sacks. Despite being somewhat of a 4-3 tweener at 6-2, 270, he has great versatility and is able to line up inside or outside. He has excellent explosiveness off the snap and really does a good job of using his hands to disengage and close on the quarterback. The Lions will move him up and down the line, so the Cowboys will have to be aware of where he is lining up.

Opposite Hyder is Devin Taylor (6-7, 275), a long, athletic defensive end who isn’t exactly explosive, but where he really excels is at using his strength and length to stuff the run. He is also a passable pass rusher with 4.5 sacks in 2016 after recording seven in 2015, but his strength is definitely in stopping the run. Side note, he is a free agent following the season and may be the type of somewhat under the radar player who wouldn’t break the bank that the Cowboys could be interested in.

The starters at defensive tackle are former long-time Raven Haloti Ngata, and a player many thought the Cowboys could be interested at the top of the second round of the 2016 draft, A’Shawn Robinson. At 32 years of age Ngata isn’t quite the player he was in Baltimore when he was one of the best defensive players in the league, but he is still a force against the run on the interior at 6-4, 345. At this point in his career he is mostly just a two-down player though. Next to him, Robinson is having a nice rookie season with two sacks and an impressive seven pass deflections, while also being disruptive against the run, which was his forte coming out of Alabama.

Overall, this is a strong defensive line with youth and talent, although it fares much better against the run than in rushing the passer, which is likely a function of Ansah playing at less than 100%. The Lions have fewer sacks than the Cowboys, with only 24 on the year, but they do rank just outside of the top 10 in rushing yards allowed per game. This isn’t a dominant unit by any means but there are several good players who can cause problems for an offense.

Linebackers

This group is led by Tahir Whitehead, a tackling machine at middle linebacker with 119 total tackles, which ranks in the top 10 in the league. He is by no means an elite linebacker, and the fact that he plays almost every snap and has compiled the stats that he has is more of a function of the Lions not really having any other options at the position. With that said, he has excellent size at 6-2, 241, and he can definitely acquit himself well in pass coverage and of course in the run game, he just isn’t quite dominant enough in either regard to be up there with the elite in the league.

The Lions do have a linebacker who looked to be well on his way to entering that elite category just a few years ago and that is DeAndre Levy. An explosive, physical player who is excellent in coverage, Levy amassed over 250 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and an astounding seven interceptions and 20 pass deflections over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He was rewarded in the 2015 offseason with a $37+ million contract, although since then he hadn’t played a game until two weeks ago due to an untold number of lower body injuries. There’s no telling how much he will play on Monday night after playing about 50 combined snaps over the last two games, but his presence is undoubtedly a boost for this unit.

In Levy’s absence Josh Bynes has generally been the preferred linebacker next to Whitehead, but he is nothing more than a replacement-level player.

Unless Levy is back to his 2014 form this should be an area the Cowboys offense looks to exploit.

Secondary

This is a unit that has struggled throughout most of the year as they have allowed the highest completion percentage in the NFL, while giving up 23 touchdowns compared to just 10 interceptions, although they have played better recently. Part of that is because they have faced teams like the Bears, Giants, Vikings and Jaguars recently, but they also did a great job of holding down the Saints passing offense on the road just a few weeks ago. Part of it could also be that the Lions secondary is made up of mostly young players, several of whom did not get significant playing time before this season, and that they’ve gotten more comfortable within the scheme as the year has gone on.

The best player here is undoubtedly cornerback Darius Slay, a former second-round pick out of Mississippi State. Slay has good size at 6-0, 190, he is smooth in and out of his back pedal and has the speed, as well as the size, to match-up with the best receivers in the league. He also has impressive ball skills as he’s put up six interceptions and over 40 pass deflections over the past three seasons. This is one of the best cornerbacks around the league that nobody seems to really talk about. Slay injured his hamstring against the Giants, an injury that caused him to miss two games earlier in the year, but his status for Monday is mostly unknown. If he isn’t on the field it would be an absolutely huge loss as he is perhaps the best defensive player on the team.

Across from Slay is Nevin Lawson, a fourth-round pick by the Lions in 2014 who did not receive much playing time until last season. He is undersized at 5-9, 192 and considering how impressive Slay is, this is likely a player the Cowboys will look to take advantage of. If Slay is unable to play Lawson will be the the Lions’ number one corner, with Asa Jackson and Johnson Bademosi, two replacement-level players that have struggled, next to him at cornerback. If that’s the case, advantage Cowboys.

The starters at safety are veteran Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson, who is in his first season in Detroit. Quin is a veteran with plenty of starting experience who made the Pro Bowl in 2014 with a career-high seven interceptions. Since joining the Lions in 2013 he has 16 interceptions in four seasons. He is one of the more underrated free safeties in the league who is very good in deep coverage, while also having tremendous ball skills once the ball is in the air. Wilson on the other hand was primarily a reserve/special teams player in New England before joining Detroit in the offseason, where he has cemented a starting role this season. Wilson usually plays closer to the line of scrimmage in a more traditional strong safety type of role, and he has rewarded the Lions for their belief in him, posting two interceptions and ranking second on the team in tackles.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • Pass rush is lacking with Ansah at less than 100%
  • Lack of playmakers at linebacker unless Levy can somehow get back to his form of two years ago
  • Secondary is only average and has allowed plenty of big plays, if Slay is out the Cowboys should be able to easily take advantage of this unit
  • Defense as a whole is average to slightly above average

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Powerful defensive tackles that are stout against the run
  • Slay and Quin are playmakers in the secondary
  • Hyder using his quickness and athleticism as an interior pass-rusher
  • Ansah and Levy, if healthy, are difference makers, but there isn’t much indicating that they are firing on all cylinders