Lions confident linebackers will make strides in second season under Aaron Glenn
Allen Park — From the outside looking in, the Detroit Lions invested surprisingly little in its linebackers this offseason.
Whichever way you slice it, the group underperformed a year ago, the first season under coordinator Aaron Glenn. But instead of adding a high-profile upgrade via free agency or the draft, the Lions retained most of last year's pieces and didn't select a linebacker until the sixth round of the draft.
It's understandable if that strategy doesn't inspire confidence, but make no mistake about it, the Lions believe in what they're doing at the position.
It starts with Alex Anzalone, who followed Glenn from New Orleans to serve as a veteran bridge as the coordinator implemented a new scheme in Detroit. And in many ways, Anzalone was a perfect stopgap as an on-field and locker room leader and mentor to Detroit's less experienced players. He also produced at a career-best level, playing nearly every snap and pacing the group in tackles before an arm injury sidelined him most of the final four games.
Anzalone was selected a captain for the first time in his career last season, while also handling the relay of play calls to the sideline. Coach Dan Campbell called the veteran linebacker a calming presence.
"I think communication is definitely something I do well and I take pride in that," Anzalone said. "I think it's something as a linebacker you have to do, because if not, there's just going to be panic everywhere. You get the calls out, you make the right checks and you do all the right things, everyone else plays off of that."
But one area where Anzalone lagged woefully behind was missed tackles. Not much of an issue during his four seasons with the Saints, he whiffed 21 times in 2021 according to Pro Football Focus, and his 21.2% missed tackle percentage was the worst in the league for his position.
Campbell said that deficiency has been addressed between the coaching staff and player this offseason, and Anzalone acknowledged he let his fundamentals slip at times when fighting the fatigue attached to a larger weekly workload.
"I think that it kind of is just a focus thing," Anzalone said. "I think that when you go through a season and you get tired and you get, you're playing a lot and you have to just queue into the technique and fundamentals of everything. Your pad level. Your drops. Your tackling. Your hands. I think that's something that I definitely want to improve on and I think that's something that we're taking care of."
Additionally, there's a case to be made that a schematic shift, which will see the defensive front attacking more, and the linebackers playing more downhill, compared to sitting back and reacting to the play, should help Anzalone get back to being the sure-tackler he was earlier in his career.
"If you're waiting to tackle someone, I mean it's just kind of basic football — It's harder to make that tackle rather than run to the leverage or the proper angle downhill," he explained. "I think that's definitely something that's going to benefit around our crew. And the defense in total, because I think as a defense that's something that we want to improve on all together."
Beyond Anzalone, the Lions are excited about the other talent in the room. There's lofty expectations tied to Derrick Barnes making sizeable improvements his second season after battling predictable rookie inconsistencies as a fourth-round pick. Remember, he was rushed into significant playing time earlier than expected following the unceremonious release of veteran Jamie Collins.
Anzalone praised Barnes' vastly improved knowledge of the scheme, while Campbell said he's noticed notable strides in Barnes' attitude and demeanor.
"It’s good to see," Campbell said. "I love where Barnes is at because I can feel Barnes on special teams right now, and I see his growth as a linebacker. He’s very much in play in there. So, he’s right where he needs to be, he’s growing."
Along with Barnes, it's been no secret the coaching staff has been enamored with rookie Malcolm Rodriguez. After sliding all the way to the sixth round of the draft because of concerns about his small-than-average frame, the former Oklahoma State standout has impressed with his intelligence, instincts and willingness to deliver a big hit.
There's also Chris Board, who similar to Anzalone prior to coming to Detroit, never was able to break out of a rotational role with his former team, the Baltimore Ravens. Here, he's taken reps with the first-team defense throughout the offseason and impressed with his coverage ability, which is something the Lions needed to replace after losing Jalen Reeves-Maybin in free agency.
And Detroit's depth is rounded out by returning former first-round pick Jarrad Davis, Shaun Dion Hamilton and a pair of special-teams standouts in Josh Woods and Anthony Pittman.
"I think there’s enough talent that’s in that room and in those players, that the competition is going to pull out the most of that group," Campbell said. "...I mean, if you’re worthy of playing, we’ll play you. If we got four linebackers that we feel like are starters, can produce and help us, they’re going to play. That’s the bottom line.
"When you have all those guys in a room and you’re asking them to compete, I think what comes out of the ashes here is going to be pretty good."