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Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: Meyer, Hamilton, not too shy to shun conventional wisdom

September 4, 2009

You’d think that entering this weekend’s NJAC showdown against tri-state-area-rival Buffalo State, the Lions’ defense would have its fair share of concerns–considering it allowed over 278 yards rushing in last season’s contest. You’d also be inclined to believe that the coaching staff would be even more worrisome of any rushing threat featuring a Bengals’ quarterback, in lieu of Mark Boswell‘s (listed this year at WR) 80 yards rushing and two TDs that fueled every last scoring drive of his offense’s 32-point handling of the unit in ’08.

With those kinds of numbers, they’d certainly have good reason to. But they aren’t.

In fact, they’re counting on it.

“We’re expecting them to run the option,” Craig Meyer–one of the team’s c0-captains and undoubted anchor on its defensive line–said via telephone interview. “As long as we can contain those backs on the option, and force the QB to hold onto the ball, we’d love for our middle linebacker to come up and lay a hit on him.”

Most of the looks that the unit expects to face this Saturday aren’t based on Buffalo State’s preseason game film–which wasn’t offered on account that it didn’t exist. Still, the defense’s feels it’s appropriately directing its focus toward neutralizing the Bengals’ projected impact players at running back, one of who–though he’s “not a football guy” in the Lions’ players’ description–he definitely fits the mold of a different adjective: fast.

Though his impact for the Bengals’ thus far has been limited (he carried four times in his five appearances in ’08) running back Willie Horge’s New York State Collegiate Track Conference’s “Track Athlete of the Year” honors in 2007 aren’t anything to scoff at. And that’s not mentioning those two NCAA championship sprints on his record during the same year (100m, 200m). Yeah, I know–dude can run.

The two-headed tandem–that includes team captain Sammy Smith, who gashed the Lions’ D for 109 yards and a score of his own a year ago–isn’t going to offer mercy in its first game after head coach Jerry Boyes return from his nine-year hiatus at the helm of the Bengals’ organization.

But Meyer’s okay with that–he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve got a couple things we’re going to try out there with packages and see what we can do to stop that option and shut down the run,” Meyer said, correcting my assumption of the unit’s primary concern entering this Saturday’s home-opener. “We think they’re going to try and run the ball down our throats and that’s what we want.”

And the coaching staff feels well-prepared, should their opponents choose a run-heavy approach as its weapon of choice, as defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton expressed his confidence that his scheme can curb the potent Bengals option-run attack.

“It’s always a concern,” he said casually, in response to the posed statistic. “But, you’re not going to give up as many seams in a 40-front as you do with a 30. And that’s versus the run and the pass.”

The change from last year’s base-defense that featured only three-down linemen, according to Hamilton, offers accommodations to the unit’s most major area of weakness in 2008.

“If you saw, we got hurt with the run last year, but it was all inside. They would create movement, they’d run [certain plays] to create that movement and cut back where there’s more seams. In a 40-front, you just won’t have that many seams.”

Meyer echoed his coach’s assessment that the unit’s defensive tackles certainly had a burden on its hands. “We really need our defensive tackles to play well and not get blown off the ball. It’s definitely important.”

In spite of the challenges likely to wear helmets and shoulder pads this Saturday, the unit seems much more concerned with overcoming the most combative force it’s seen thus far–in practice and preseason action.

“It’s all mental for us. As long as we can execute things mentally, we’re going to be fine,” Meyer said about his team’s abilities. “We can hit. We’re gonna come out and we’re gonna smack them. We’re going to set the tone.”

“It’s going to be about keeping our mental mistakes to a minimum,” Hamilton said, a half-step short of jogging to the coaches’ locker room after Wednesday’s practice. “Physically we can handle everything.”

Entering his second year as official brainchild of the team’s defensive strategy, Hamilton believes the linchpin of the team’s success is, well, “just playing football.”

“We told them after Albright three things,” he said referring to the team’s scrimmage last Friday. “Be ready on the snap of the ball, alignment, assignment. If you’re ready to play at the snap and you’re aligned properly, it makes it easy to do your job. You do that, and you’re gonna be good.”

Meyer noted his defensive unit’s confidence in the wake of its simulated learning experience a week ago. Especially if Buffalo State’s preseason schedule was as vacant as its coaching staff suggested.

“We kind of have an advantage if they haven’t scrimmaged because we got to make mistakes and learn from them [in our scrimmage],” he said. “Looking at the tape [the points allowed] wasn’t because we played bad physically—we made mental mistakes. As long as we can fix those mistakes, we’ll be fine.”

Led by its three co-captains–Meyer, wide receiver Cam Richardson, and free safety Ryan Flannery–the Lions will open the season this Saturday, Sept. 5, at noon in Lions’ Stadium.

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