Lions' Dan Campbell sees positives in linebacker Alex Anzalone's play, despite struggles
The first two weeks of the season have produced a pair of uninspiring and ugly displays from the Lions’ defense.
Opponents are averaging 38 points and 382 yards of total offense per game. The unit ranks 27th in the league in average yards allowed per play (6.59) and last in passing yards allowed per completion (10.15). The Lions are one of five teams that have yet to prevent the opposition from scoring in the red zone.
When asked what the defense can build upon after seeing it in action for two games, the first name Lions coach Dan Campbell brought up, unprompted, was linebacker Alex Anzalone.
"I think we're looking for guys that are going to challenge on the perimeter and we're looking for guys that are going to rally to the football,” Campbell said Tuesday. “You watch Alex Anzalone, man, I thought he was all over the field last night. Was it perfect? No, but from point A to point B, he was damn near in on every tackle and I think that's the type of guys we're looking at.”
Campbell mentioned veteran defensive end Michael Brockers as another example and called him a tone-setter along with Anzalone. However, Campbell’s unsolicited defense of Anzalone comes as the fifth-year pro has struggled mightily during Detroit’s 0-2 start.
Among linebackers who have played at least 50% of their team's defensive snaps, Anzalone is ranked 52 out of 53 by Pro Football Focus. He was graded the team's worst defensive player in the season opener against the 49ers and third worst in Monday night’s 35-17 loss to the Packers among players with at least five snaps.
Anzalone, who was voted a team captain and is one of three Lions defenders to play 100% of the team’s defensive snaps this season, tallied a team-high 10 tackles against the Packers. However, he also leads the team with three missed tackles and has given up catches all nine times he's been targeted in coverage for 105 yards, per PFF, including a 22-yard touchdown reception to Packers tight end Robert Tonyan in a third-and-6 situation.
"Alex wasn't perfect, but I thought he was all over the field and made a lot of plays,” Campbell said. “I thought he played with a lot of energy. I think he was spot on with his calls. Look, he's high effort, he's smart, he's kind of what we're about here. I liked where he was at.”
While effort isn’t an issue with Anzalone, it’s been a criticism at times for fellow linebacker Jamie Collins, who tallied five tackles — one for loss — against the Packers and is ranked 17th at his position by PFF.
Campbell noted Collins made some mistakes in Green Bay and said Monday’s outing wasn’t his best.
"Jamie is a big linebacker. He's a very athletic linebacker. The way he moves is a little bit different,” Campbell said. “Now, does he move with the same effort or have the same effort as Alex? No, I don't. I think Alex just plays at a high level all the time. That's him. That’s how it goes.
“There are things that Jamie does well that we still have to continue to use. He's still a mismatch on third down, particularly in the rush game. We'll see where this goes.”
Given the way Anzalone and Collins have performed so far, Campbell reiterated that rookie Derrick Barnes, who didn’t play a defensive snap against the Packers, “deserves a shot” and will be worked into the linebacker rotation moving forward.
When the Lions started their fourth possession at their 41-yard line with under two minutes left in the second quarter, Campbell had a simple strategy — don’t give the ball back to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and put some points on the board.
It’s easier said than done, considering both teams had all three timeouts remaining. Yet Campbell was pleased with the clock management and the outcome.
The Lions started the drive with 1:46 remaining and marched down to Green Bay’s 25-yard line in three plays before they called their first timeout with 24 seconds left. After burning their second timeout following a short completion, Jared Goff threw a pair of deep passes that fell incomplete, forcing the Lions to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Austin Seibert and a 17-14 lead.
“To us, it was like, ‘How do we use all of this clock and come away with points?’” Campbell said. “Certainly, a touchdown would’ve been great, but we felt like we handled it pretty well. We got down there in position, we took a shot, we didn’t get a touchdown out of it, but we did get a field goal to go up three at halftime and not give the ball back to (Rodgers).”
Next man up
Campbell said he expects rookie cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu to miss at least the next couple of games after he exited Monday’s loss in the third quarter with a thigh injury.
“First of all, man, I though the kid did some good things, I really did, man. It’s a step in the right direction,” Campbell said. “I feel bad for him. He’s going to be down for a little while. He’s going to be down for a significant amount of time and so certainly won’t have him for at least a couple of weeks, if not more.”
With Melifonwu sidelined, Campbell said Bobby Price, a converted safety; Jerry Jacobs, an undrafted rookie; and Daryl Worley, who signed to the practice squad last week, will get a shot to fill the cornerback spot. Price and Jacobs each saw playing time against Packers after Melifonwu went down.
"I thought (Price) did pretty good. I thought he went out there and competed,” Campbell said. “I thought he played aggressive, he was unfazed and, man, it was encouraging.”
Ravens at Lions
► Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit
► TV/radio: CBS/97.1
► Records: Ravens 1-1; Lions 0-2
► Line: Ravens by 9