Lions expecting better from Ifeatu Melifonwu in second start at safety

Opportunity knocked for Ifeatu Melifonwu last week, and this week the expectations for him are higher.

With starting safety DeShon Elliott out in Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers, Ifeatu Melifonwu got an opportunity to play more after moving to safety from cornerback during the offseason. And play he indeed did, with 66 defensive snaps (97 percent snap share) against the Panthers.

Melifonwu’s raw tackle number wasn’t bad against Carolina, with eight total stops and one tackle for loss. But he was also slow to react or flat-out out of position defending the run, not that he was unique in that as the Lions were gashed for 320 yards on the ground by the Panthers. The second-year man was also beaten for a touchdown through the air.

Elliott will be out again on Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Melifonwu will get his second straight start then, with the natural expectation he will perform better.

Before Friday’s practice, via Tim Twentyman of the team website, head coach Dan Campbell put precise words to Melifonwu starting again in place of Elliott with the expectation he will play better against the Bears.

Detroit Lions: Ifeatu Melifonwu may be at an early defining moment

Here’s what Campbell said about Melifonwu.

I would anticipate we’d see him react quicker,” “I think we’re going to see a player that sees it faster and triggers faster, and he knows what we’re looking for just from what we talked about, the intensity, the aggressiveness. So, yeah, I anticipate we’ll see a better version of Iffy.”

To be fair, Melifonwu had played six defensive snaps all season before the game against Carolina. In those prior seven games he’d played, as an ankle injury sidelined him for a time, he played 67 special teams snaps. So some growing pains were likely, as the Lions kept C.J. Moore primarily on special teams.

Melifonwu talked about the difference he expects in his second start at safety.

Game 1 to Game 2 will definitely be a little bit slower,” Melifonwu said Friday. “That was my first time playing safety ever in my whole career. It’s a whole different change from being on the outside and seeing half the field and being more in man responsibility.  To being in the box and responsible for run and pass and communication…

Overall, Melifonwu has missed 17 of a possible 32 regular season games through his first two seasons. He started four games at cornerback as a rookie last year, including playing nearly every snap in the final three games of the season after returning from IR.

Melifonwu will be a key part of the Lions’ defensive effort against the Bears, particularly in defending the running of quarterback Justin Fields.

With Elliott looking likely to be back for the regular season finale against the Packers, Sunday will be key piece of Melifonwu’s audition tape for a roster spot in Detroit as things move into 2023.