Just two years ago, the Detroit Lions featured one of the most fearsome defenses in the NFL.
Pro Bowl players Ezekiel Ansah and Ndamukong Suh anchored a deadly defensive line that brought down opposing quarterbacks almost as often as opposing running backs. Veteran safety Glover Quin routinely hauled in interceptions, rising star Darius Slay was quickly growing into his role as a shutdown corner, and newly minted defensive coordinator Teryl Austin kept the defense humming all season long. Sprinkle in quality performances from linebacker Tahir Whitehead, safety James Ihedigbo, and veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis, and all of the sudden, the Lions had a pretty formidable defensive front.
Add one DeAndre Levy tearing up the middle for 121 tackles on the season, and the Lions' defense was just downright scary.
Now fast forward to today. Suh is long gone, lured south to Miami by a monster paycheck. Mathis is retired, and linemen Nick Fairley and CJ Mosley were signed by other teams. Ihedigbo has been released, and defensive end Jason Jones is gone, also to the Dolphins. As for Levy? He's coming off missing practically the entirety of the 2015 season because of a hip injury. And his return couldn't have been more timely.
This season is going to be a big one for the defense. Last season wasn't particularly blemish-free, and they are going to need a steadying force as the Lions' new-look offense finds its groove, with several brand-new receivers and linemen as well as a young rotation at running back. Levy's role in that defense simply cannot be understated. His return to a thin group of linebackers is a much-needed one, and with so many big defensive departures over the past few seasons, much of the Lions' success will hinge upon whether he can return to his dominant form.
That dominant form is one that saw Levy, 29, lead the NFL in solo tackles in 2014. A speedy, tough player who can track running backs as well as opposing passers, Levy is a valuable asset in stopping the run game and coming up with the occasional interception. Additionally, Levy's ability to pressure the passer will bolster a Lions' team that struggled to blitz effectively last season. His return marks a huge addition to an inexperienced linebacking corp, especially with the release of Stephen Tulloch in the offseason. The team will need him to elevate his game to help get the defense off the field, and get the ball back into the hands of Matthew Stafford as often as possible.
Levy's return will have a big impact off the field as well. A steadying, veteran presence in the locker room, he'll help less experienced linebackers like Kyle van Noy and Josh Bynes get up to speed. In general, Levy will be a welcome addition to a team that has lost leaders like Calvin Johnson and Suh in the past few years. His maturity will be a guiding force for several of the younger players as they grow more comfortable in their roles with the team and step up to fill voids left by departures.
It's always wise to keep expectations in check when a player is returning from an absence. The severity of Levy's injury was great enough to warrant surgery and him sitting out a season, and anytime a player comes back from something like that the risk of re-injury is high. Beyond that, it's entirely possible that Levy's year away from football could've caused a little regression in his skills, or some rust at the least.
But if Levy can find his game once again, or even a shade of his old form, defensive coordinator Austin will have a run-stopping playmaker that will aid a defense that went from best in the league against the rush in 2014 to a middling 14th in 2015. Of course, he's only one player on the field, but the Lions will take all the help they can get. Keeping opposing teams off of the scoreboard will be paramount in a season where a retooled Lions' offense is feeling out its identity under new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
At the very least, with all of the turmoil surrounding the Lions this past season (new general manager, new offensive coordinator, Johnson's retirement) it will be refreshing for both fans and fellow players alike to see No. 54 out there on the field again. Hopefully, they'll be seeing that same No. 54 making plays and leading this defense back to where it once was.