The arrival of the Detroit Lions on the national scene this year is front-page news, but to those paying close attention to what this latest regime of Lions leadership has brought to the table, you’ll know they’ve been on the doorstep for almost a calendar year.
“If you’re hunting us,” Lions head coach Dan Campbell said after the team’s victory over the Green Bay Packers in Week 4, “you won’t have to look far. We’re gonna be on your front porch.”
Detroit has proven, through five weeks, to be one of the best teams, not just in their division, or in their conference, but in the entire league. And for so many years during the Lions most recent era, the Matthew Stafford seasons, the team’s best defense was most often times its offense. The Lions haven’t had a team with this much promise since their team in 2014, and it’s no coincidence that Detroit ranked as one of the top defenses in the league both then and now.
As we’ll do every week throughout the season for this Lions team, we’ll comb through some of the advanced data courtesy of PFF that can help us better understand the football the Lions have played thus far—and what to look forward to in the coming weeks. Let’s take a closer look at the Lions by the numbers after their decisive victory over the Panthers in their Week 5 matchup.
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On Sunday, Bryce Young dropped back to pass 44 times. Young was under pressure on 16 of those dropbacks according to PFF, and it was not a pretty afternoon for the rookie quarterback: Young completed just two of 14 passing attempts on those dropbacks for 14 passing yards and a 39.6 passer rating. In total, the Lions defense was swarming and relentless, tallying a season-high 31 pressures against Carolina.
Aidan Hutchinson led the way with eight pressures, recording Detroit’s only sack and posting the third-best pass rush win percentage (24.3%) of edge defenders with at least 29 pass-rushing snaps in Week 5. Hutchinson’s 34 total pressures this season sits atop the league along with Maxx Crosby of the Las Vegas Raiders.
93.5 run defense grade
The box score tells you the Panthers had the most success of a Lions opponent on the ground so far this season. 99 rushing yards on just 23 carries (4.3 yards per carry) is the most efficient mark posted thus far, but a significant chunk of that “efficient” running came in the second half with the Lions in control of the game and leading by 25+ points.
In the first half, the Panthers totaled 55 rushing yards on 15 carries (3.7 YPC), and their running backs, Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard, had just 32 rushing yards on 10 carries. The Lions posted 10 defensive stops in run defense according to PFF, a measure of plays constituted as a “failure” for the offense, and the man in the middle, Alim McNeill, led the way. His 93.5 run defense grade against the Panthers on Sunday stands as the best mark of his career, besting his 79.8 run defense grade against the Green Bay Packers in Week 18 of the 2021 season, his rookie year.
Not only was it a personal best for McNeill, it was the top mark in the NFL for defenders with at least 18 run defense snaps. Not just interior defenders, not just defensive linemen, it was the best run defense grade among all defenders in the NFL.
5.85 yards per route run
The streak is alive and well through five weeks of football!
While many were concerned about the Lions lack of receiver depth heading into the season, Josh Reynolds, the serpent of death, laid in waiting for his time to strike. Through five weeks, all of Reynolds’ 16 catches have been for first downs, and he’s been one of the most explosive, big-play threats in the league. His 18.2 yards per reception ranks fifth among pass catchers, and his 12.1 yards per target ranks 10th.
In Week 5, Reynolds rose to the challenge when the Lions were without their top receiver in Amon-Ra St. Brown, catching four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. What’s most impressive about Reynolds performance was his 5.85 yards per route run, a testament to his efficiency and the third-best mark in Week 5 among all pass catchers behind just two names: Tyreek Hill and DJ Moore—two of the most explosive threats in the NFL.
There’s too many numbers to highlight from Anzalone this week, so let’s just take this opportunity to highlight how far he’s come since he arrived in Detroit at the beginning of this rebuild.
In 2021, Anzalone posted one of the worst PFF defense grades for a linebacker (35.4), ranking 56th out of 60 qualifying players at his position, and his missed tackle rate (21.2%) was the worst among that group. Many wondered, myself included, when Detroit would upgrade from Anzalone by adding a more reliable player in the middle of their defense. But in his second season, Anzalone’s play improved, the defense took major strides in the second half of 2022, and Anzalone earned a contract extension with a sizable pay bump. Still, it felt like Detroit could make a move to improve at the position, and then they shocked everyone when they selected Jack Campbell in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
The assumption Campbell would replace Anzalone as the team’s MIKE linebacker was rebuffed all camp long, and now, Anzalone (mostly at the WILL position) is one of the key pieces to a Detroit defense that ranks among the best in the NFL.
In Week 5, Anzalone played 69 snaps on defense, posting an 80.0 defense grade, and leading the team in tackles (11) and QB hits (2)—his two QB hits also led all linebackers in the NFL, despite him having just five pass-rushing snaps on Sunday. His coverage grade (80.3) was seventh among all linebackers, and most importantly, Anzalone continues to clean up his tackling, posting a zero missed tackles for the second week in a row.