Lions linebackers having a productive year

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- As a group, they can sometimes become lost, literally, in the middle. Not by not doing anything, but rather because what the Detroit Lions linebackers do allow everyone else to be much more productive.

Detroit's defensive line is one of the top groups in the NFL. Its secondary has played better this season than last. Much of it has to do with the players who are considered part of both the front seven and back seven, depending on how someone is describing the defense.

"It makes my job tremendously easy," safety Louis Delmas said. "Just to sit back there and know that I don't have to drive on a dig route because I know my linebacker is going to be there in support, making sure that he gets in that hole so that dig route is not open.

"To not have to always come up and make tackles that you know that linebackers can make, and they do. To have leaders such as them two, Stephen Tulloch and [DeAndre] Levy, Ashlee Palmer, to have the three of them back there rotating and making plays give us much more confidence to actually do our own job."

Their job makes everything else easier for the other seven to eight players on the field.

Levy, who is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career, already has four interceptions, including one for a touchdown, and leads the Lions in tackles with 49. Tulloch is second with 46 and has two sacks. That number is impressive when you consider how infrequently Detroit blitzes because of the strength of its front four.

The success of the linebackers comes from playing together -- Levy and Tulloch have been together for three seasons now, understanding each other and what will be coming from each play and each side.

That matters.

"It helps a lot," linebacker Palmer said. "Us three, us knowing the system as well as we do, it's very rare you have a lot of mistakes. You know, you have mistakes but they are really small mistakes you can easily correct.

"That's the big focus in our group. We don't have too many big mistakes. Just because of us all knowing the system."

A lot of that starts with Levy. His ability to read plays and instinctually end up in the right spot over and over again helps everyone on the Detroit defense. He's become increasingly adept at sniffing out opposing screens, and then there are the interceptions.

Yes, he's been the beneficiary of help on some of them -- two came directly because defensive line pressure forced bad passes -- but many of the plays he's making on his own, too.

His abilities didn't show up immediately to cornerback Rashean Mathis. When Mathis arrived in Detroit in August, one of his former teammates, cornerback Scott Starks, asked about Levy because they had both played at Wisconsin.

At first, Mathis didn't know what to say.

"I was like, 'I don't know, I'm trying to feel him out,' " Mathis said. "A couple of weeks ago, I called Scott and was like, 'He's a football player.' "

What Mathis saw was the communication he had with Levy on the field reading pass plays. They would often discuss potential route combinations between plays and alerted each other if they saw anything. Then, on rushing plays, he saw a player who always appeared to be around the ball.

The linebackers, though, are the players who make everything less stressful. A good linebacker group allows the defensive line to focus on rushing the passer, stopping the run and stunting more effectively. It allows the secondary to not have to worry about dropping down into run support or having to cover short routes over the middle.

"If you don't have a good linebacking corps, it could be some long days for you," Mathis said. "They keep tackles off of us. I'm a corner. Five tackles a game is what I want to stay around.

"If I get up to eight, nine, 10 tackles, that means my linebackers aren't getting to the ball. We don't have that problem here."

Any defense that has success needs those men in the middle doing all of it.