Mailbag: Benefits, downsides of Lions' three-safety defense

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions coordinator Teryl Austin has always used various packages at every level of his defense to try and get his players to perform up to their strengths while hiding potential weaknesses.

One of the ways the Lions have consistently done that over the last three years has been with a three-safety look. But why don't more teams use it? And what can go wrong?

Those questions are taken on in today's Lions Mailbag.

To ask a question for a future daily Lions Mailbag, use the hashtag #LionsMailbag on Twitter, email me at michael.rothstein@espn.com or drop me a note over on Facebook here (and feel free to follow along).

Now, on to this week's question.

Ryan from Michigan asks via email: There's a lot of positive talk about Detroit transitioning to a 4-2-5 defense -- or at least using a 3-safety set more effectively. What are some of the ways an opposing offense can attack a 3-safety set? It seems to be effective in stifling the run game and pass game, but I'm curious to know what the downside is to this alignment -- or if the Lions will draft to further support and expand this defense in 2017.


Good question. This is a defensive strategy the Lions have used often -- even before this season. Detroit initially employed it with Teryl Austin during the 2014 season, when the franchise used Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddus in a big safety package to help against certain personnel situations.

Since that point, it's been a staple of the Detroit defense. This year, the Lions have used a three-safety package primarily with Quin and then new signings Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson. Occasionally, in third down situations, Miles Killebrew comes into the game as a hybrid linebacker/safety.

So what's the point of it? To try and get an answer, I asked Bush.

"I don't think there are any dangers. We practice together to work out the kinks, just like any team would," Bush said. "And we go out there and execute. I don't think there are any dangers to it.

"A lot of our guys in our room are versatile and we don't see it as this guy can play free safety, this guy can play strong safety, whatever the case may be. At the end of the day, we're defensive backs and that's kind of how we look at it."

It may be listed as three safeties on the field, but Quin once played cornerback and most defensive backs have experience at both spots.

The Lions have used it more as the year has gone on because of the change in personnel this year from the last two years. Bush and Wilson were new to Austin's defense and the Lions, so it took a little bit of time for that communication -- key in any defense, but particularly between defensive backs in this situation -- to really be shored up.

"That can take some time, coming into a new scheme, new terminology, new language," Bush said. "Doing things differently as opposed to how you're used to doing it. So that'll take some time.

"You have to train your mind in a different manner and sometimes you have to fight with that."

The Lions have grown more comfortable with it over the past month or so as the package has consistently been part of Detroit's defense more and more each week.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell explained that the team uses it, in part, because of the personnel they have. Since Caldwell's arrival in 2014, the franchise has always had three good safeties so it was a way to get some of their better players on the field more frequently.

The downside, depending on the personnel, is in pass coverage. It isn't as big of a problem for the Lions because they have Quin, who is strong against the pass, as one of the safeties and can move him around depending on the slot receiver.

This season, Bush has also shown versatility in coverage as well as run-stopping so it has added a different dimension to what the Lions are able to do.

"Like most teams, or some of the teams that use it, it's still dictated by what the opposition does," Caldwell said. "It still depends on what they try to do, how they try to attack you.

"It's an answer for us in that regard."