A sneaky part of the Detroit Lions' 8-2 finish in 2022 was a marked improvement in the run defense. Well, outside of Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers, when Carolina put up 320 yards on the ground.
Through Week 4 this season, as they prepare to take on the Panthers in Week 5, the Lions have the NFL's top-ranked run defense (60.8 yards allowed per game). Linebacker Alex Anzalone addressed what he thinks is driving the league's best run defense.
"I feel like run defense is the whole team. It's corners, it's the linebackers, it's the D-line, it's the safeties," "It's a credit to everyone, really. Teams were figuring out last year how to get certain weaknesses exposed. This year there really are none so far. So we've just got to keep it that way."
It was easy to question the Lions' decision to re-sign Anzalone last offseason, let alone give him a three-year deal. But he has continued on an improvement track this season, ranking 29th of 57 qualifying off-ball linebackers through Week 4 in overall Pro Football Focus grade. He is also highly valued for his leadership by the coaching staff, and he has been voted a captain in all three of his seasons in Detroit.
Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes are spearheading Lions' No. 1 run defense
Another early storyline for the Lions' defense is the emergence of Derrick Barnes. He carried an excellent offseason into training camp, and now into the season. Having played edge rusher in college at Purdue, he has gotten some opportunities to rush the passer along with his being a key cog stopping the run.
Barnes noted his relationship with Anzalone, dating back to when both came to the Lions in 2021.
"Alex, in my eyes, he's a star, man. A guy that knows the game, a guy that knows where to be at the right time. You know, me and Alex always talk. We train together, he's really become my best friend," Barnes said..... "He's a vital player, knows the game well, knows what the offense wants to do, always in the right position to make plays. That's a guy you want around. That's a guy you want on the field playing beside you. I'm honored to have him play next to me, so I take pride in that relationship."
Earlier this week, defensive tackle Alim McNeill noted how the Lions' defense has gelled so far this season. Anzalone and Barnes appear to be the top symbols of that coalescence.