For their Week 14 game against the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions made a surprise decision to bench safety Tracy Walker in favor of Ifeatu Melifonwu. The third-year man out of Syracuse seemed to secure that starting job with his performance in that game, and he's been better in the two games since.
Last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Melifonwu had the game-clinching interception. But he stuffed the stat sheet, with five tackles (two tackles for loss), two sacks and two pass breakups. So it's no surprise Melifonwu is NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 16.
Melifonwu drafted as a cornerback in 2021, the the first pick the Lions had from the Matthew Stafford. Injuries have been a story over his career, including a hand injury that limited to special teams for a stretch this year and quite possibly delayed the move to start him. He also made the switch to safety in 2022, which was made more difficult by the injuries.
Ifeatu Melifonwu is finding his way
On Wednesday, via MLive, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn talked about Melifonwu.
"Iffy understands exactly what he’s doing now,” Glenn said. “And I’m not saying he didn’t before, but man, (now) he’s just so comfortable in that position of being safety. That’s what I mean when I say now, because that transition is not easy for everybody, because now you go from a single-focus guy (as a cornerback) to, ‘Man, I’ve got the see the field.’ And that’s what he’s done a really good job of."
It's been easy to see over the last couple games, with a strip-sack of Russell Wilson in Week 15 to go with his two sacks last week, but Glenn noted Melifonwu's success as a blitzer.
“I’ll tell you what, if you watch this player in practice when we go through some of our blitz looks and things like that, man, he does a hell of a job blitzing. And you see why he has the sack production he’s had over the last couple of weeks."
Melifonwu is the second Lion to win NFC Defensive Player of the Week this year (Aidan Hutchinson-Week 3), and he's the fourth Lion to win a Player of the Week award. Jared Goff won NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 6, and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin won Special Teams Player of the Week in Week 13.