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Film breakdown: Alex Anzalone is the rock that lets the Lions defense roll

Finally in a proper schematic spot, Detroit Lions captain Alex Anzalone is helping everybody play incredible defensive football.

Seattle Seahawks v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

After a slow start, the Detroit Lions defense picked up in Weeks 3 and 4 with solid performances against Atlanta and Green Bay. One of the defensive leaders drawing much praise for this improvement is linebacker Alex Anzalone. Here’s former NFL safety and ESPN commentator Ryan Clark following the win at Green Bay in Week 4:

“Alex Anzalone is playing really good ball for the Detroit Lions. He’s been stout in the run game and also affected the pass game with great zone drops and sticky coverage underneath. He’s the (leader) of this defense as well as. Can’t say enough about his contributions.”

Last season, Anzalone had over a hundred tackles and played very well down the stretch where the Lions were threatening to make the playoffs. In fact, that our John Whiticar called him the unsung hero of the 2022 season. However, the play we have seen from Anzalone this year is elevated. So much so, that quarterback Jared Goff is quoted as saying “(Anzalone) is playing at the highest level I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen him through his whole career. He’s playing so dang well.”

Anzalone participated in a media session on Tuesday and was asked about various things like the run defense and memories of last year’s loss to Carolina, but a writeup from Will Burchfield at 97.1 had a really interesting detail left out of the posted video:

“I feel like if you ask any coaches or ask around the scouting department and Brad (Holmes) and them, that’s really my true position,” Anzalone said. “I kind of just had to play (the MIKE) the past two years out of necessity. It feels a lot more comfortable playing a little more in space and in coverage, not as much A gap to B gap and striking linemen. I’m able to flow a little more, and that’s what complements my game.”

There’s an assumption that professional athletes are at their best in contract seasons, motivated by the bag. Maybe so. They’re also playing under heavy pressure. There’s a release that comes with getting paid. With a new deal at his natural position, Anzalone looks a little lighter on his feet. We often talk about linebackers “flying around.” Anzalone said this is “definitely” the fastest he’s flown in the NFL.

This is exactly right and goes back to what the linebacker told the media at the start of September in a media session. When asked about whether he was excited to go back to playing the WILL this season (at 5:44 in the video), he lit up: “Yeah, I am. I feel like getting drafted, that was more of my position, was Will linebacker. I can play Mike at necessity, but i’m more of a Will linebacker. And the ability to play a little bit more in space and coverage and not necessarily truly in the box—but yeah, i’m excited.”

Anzalone was stuck in the box in 2022 because he was the best option available on the roster, but that’s not really why the Lions wanted him. He’s an agile, fast linebacker who does a great job in pass coverage. When the team initially signed him in 2021, here’s what our Erik Schlitt had to say:

Expect Anzalone to be the starting second INSIDE linebacker that is deployed heavily in coverage. This is a part-time role, and he will occasionally split some time with Reeves-Maybin and/or a rookie, but that should help keep Anzalone healthy and fresh.

Now that he’s back in his element playing coverage and flying around in space, we’re seeing how much that athleticism and experience means to the Lions defense. Film from Weeks 3 and 4 provided numerous examples of Anzalone providing solid pass coverage, closing big chunks of open field to make plays in space, and just generally making everyone around him better.

Sideline to Sideline

Week 3 ATL at DET, 1Q (10:26). First-and-10 at the Atlanta 43.

Fairly early in the first quarter of Week 3, the Falcons decided to call a zone read play with their running quarterback and rookie first-round running back. 9 QB Desmond Ridder is in the pistol with 40 FB Keith Smith to his right and 7 RB Bijan Robinson deep behind him. The offensive line leaves 97 DE Aidan Hutchinson as the unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage for Ridder to read. Since 1 CB Cam Sutton bails at the snap to deep coverage, Hutchinson committing inside to take away the dive handoff to Robinson means 34 LB Alex Anzalone must secure the edge where Ridder is taking the ball.

In the first panel above on the left, we have Hutchinson sitting on the dive boxed in pink. Anzalone, boxed in yellow, starts toward the edge to secure it. In the second panel, the veteran fullback Smith engages Anzalone with a lead block on the edge. Since Sutton is back in the deep secondary, there’s nobody left to stop Ridder if he can turn the corner for some nice yards.

In the third panel, though, we see Anzalone bounces off and sheds the lead block. By that point, Hutch has also diagnosed the play and begins back side pursuit since he knows Robinson doesn’t have the ball. Anzalone strings it out and we can see him make the tackle around the 45-yard line.

That solid stand on first down against an outside run calmed things down (it was right after the long completion down the left side to 5 WR Drake London) thanks to Anzalone’s speed. The next two plays were back-to-back sacks by 94 DT Benito Jones and 55 LB Derrick Barnes, which forced the Falcons to punt.

Week 3 ATL at DET, 1Q (14:07). Third-and-3 at the Atlanta 28.

It’s not just in the run game that Anzalone’s terrific closing speed comes into play, though. Here is a third down situation on the Falcons’ opening drive in Week 3. The play call is a bunch of slants and 8 TE Kyle Pitts sitting down in the middle of the field to stretch the underneath defenders. 5 WR Drake London’s slant carries 1 CB Cam Sutton away from the perimeter, leaving 25 RB Tyler Allgeier a ton of space to work to get the required three yards in the flat.

The Lions are manned up across the board, with 55 LB Derrick Barnes as a rat in the hole and 21 S Tracy Walker as the single high deep safety. Anzalone has responsibility on Allgeier, and has to make it over in time to stop a short conversion.

When the routes develop, Anzalone not only has to run out to make it to his assignment, he has to navigate traffic on the way there. In the left panel, Anzalone has already run between Pitts and Branch while tracking Allgeier. When Ridder is about to deliver the ball, there is still a good four or five yards of separation. In the right panel, we can see that by the time the ball arrives outside the numbers, Anzalone has nearly the entire gap closed and is in position to make a play.

By completing the open-field tackle short of the sticks, Anzalone set the tone in this game, forcing the three-and-out. His range and ability to get to the outside and cover sideline to sideline from the middle of the field played a part in both early drive successes for the Lions defense.

It’s not just lateral distances that Anzalone is patrolling with his athleticism, though. He is able to shift from deep to shallow and vice versa quickly, which pairs well with his veteran instincts and play diagnosis.

Week 4 DET at GBY, 2Q (9:07). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 8.

This is the first play after the muffed punt debacle for the Green Bay special teams that pinned them deep in their own end. The offense tries to go play action, but 97 DE Aidan Hutchinson blows the play up with inside penetration. As 10 QB Jordan Love ran for his life in the end zone away from Hutchinson and 95 DE Romeo Okwara, Lions players at the second level (55 LB Barnes, 34 LB Alex Anzalone, and 6 S Ifeatu Melifonwu in the box) dropped into zone coverage actually rather deep near the Green Bay 20.

Disaster almost turned into opportunity for the Packers, though, when Love evaded long enough to make a throw. 88 TE Luke Musgrave realized what was happening and turned around (boxed in yellow) to give Love an outlet, which the quarterback eagerly took. In the first panel above, Anzalone stops his backpedal and shifts his weight when he sees this going on, but he’s 15 yards away from Musgrave.

As the ball is delivered in the second panel, Anzalone breaks into a sprint to close the distance. 23 CB Jerry Jacobs had to run with 13 WR Dontayvion Wicks near the left sideline, so there’s nobody left to make a play on Musgrave in the immediate area.

How fast does Anzalone fly to the ball? In the third panel, we see him making the hit at the 8-yard line, and the play ends up only gaining a single yard.

Reliable Coverage on TEs and RBs

Watching Anzalone in coverage is really interesting because it’s been so long since the Lions have had a linebacker with great reflexes, speed, and enough agility to keep up with quick-cutting running backs or tight ends in the passing game. The most recent one I can think of goes back to 2016 when DeAndre Levy was a force in space for the team in the 2010s.

Week 3 ATL at DET, 3Q (9:51). Second-and-13 at the Detroit 36.

Mid-way through the third quarter, the Lions are protecting a lead but the Falcons are driving. A great play by Brian Branch to force the Falcons backwards on first down has them behind schedule and throwing from an empty set. The play has two verticals clearing out defenders where routes breaking under their stems give Ridder easy throws. The Lions come out two high with Melifonwu and Walker defending deep, and are playing (based on Sutton, Branch, and Jacobs) what looks like match quarters. Anzalone is up top on the slot receiver to the offense’s left.

Anzalone is lined up head-up on the slot man shaded a little to the inside, so Ridder knows his man has leverage to the outside. That’s the throw he takes, and the Falcons take a safe but modest gain of seven yards to set up a third-and-manageable.

Right about now, you might be wondering why this is such a big deal that Anzalone was in man coverage and the Falcons got a 7-yard gain. The player he tackled for no yards after the catch with no help in space is Kyle Pitts. Yes, THAT Kyle Pitts. How many other linebackers do you think the Lions would trust going one-on-one with Pitts in coverage? Anzalone does a great job here to limit the play, and the Falcons ended up failing to convert on third down (plus they missed the field goal), so this was huge.

Week 3 ATL at DET, 3Q (5:17). First-and-10 at the Atlanta 17.

A little later in that same third quarter, the Falcons try to put 7 RB Bijan Robinson in motion and hit him on the wheel route. Starting from the left side of the formation behind 12 WR KhaDarel Hodge, Robinson runs full speed across the formation into a wheel route at the snap. Anzalone follows in him in man coverage from one side of the field to the other.

This is almost certainly a designed play to go to Robinson, figuring he will have an advantage going full speed off the motion into a vertical plus a matchup advantage against a linebacker. In the left panel above, when Ridder’s back foot hits, he’s looking right at the wheel but there’s nothing there. He doesn’t go through any progression and simply takes off immediately.

Having a linebacker that can run with the likes of Bijan Robinson and Kyle Pitts is so valuable to the Lions defense. It gives defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn much more flexibility with regards to what he can do with his safeties and alignments.

Creating Opportunities for Teammates

One of the reasons why Anzalone’s high level of play is only noticed by those actually watching the games is because so much of it does not show up in the box score. While he registers a lot of tackles (very good for a linebacker since that means the plays are not likely going into the secondary, especially on runs), his role as a coverage linebacker will never generate the gaudy pressure stats that Pro Bowl voters want to see. Instead, Anzalone is an important cog in the team defense that lets other guys land those big plays.

Week 3 ATL at DET, 3Q (1:50). First-and-10 at the Atlanta 35.

The Falcons run play action here, with 40 FB Keith Smith motioning out of a bunch set to come across and block on the back side. The main routes in what’s supposed to be a three route play (more on that in a minute) are 5 WR Drake London running a curl with 8 TE Kyle Pitts doing a double move coming across the field and then reversing back to the flag (post-corner style).

The reason I said this was supposed to be a three route play is because 7 RB Bijan Robinson is supposed to be leaking out to the flat. Instead, we have a massive shout out to 95 DE Romeo Okwara (boxed in brown) for being a mega beast on this play. Not only does he take on a double-team block from the entire right side of the Atlanta offensive line, he drives them back into Robinson’s route and prevents it from being run.

Anyway, getting back to Anzalone, the end zone All-22 view is an amazing example of what people mean when they say the zone droppers are reading the quarterback’s eyes. London is behind Anzalone, but just by looking at where Ridder’s trying to go with the ball, Anzalone flips his hips and breaks in the same direction as London to the inside. That keeps him in the throwing lane and Ridder has to pat the ball instead of grabbing and easy deep throw down the middle.

Again, following Ridder’s eyes, Anzalone changes direction and drifts back to the outside in the same direction as London (who is still behind Anzalone). London is unable to help Ridder get rid of the ball safely, buying time for 53 DE Charles Harris to come from behind to engulf Ridder for a sack.

Next up, you knew we were going to have to talk about this one: the tip ball interception by Jerry Jacobs. It’s important that we do this first before looking at another related play from later in the game.

Week 4 DET at GBY, 2Q (14:01). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 10.

Ignoring most of the routes and assignments, we are going to concentrate only on what’s going on in the lower right part of the screen. The Packers are running play action with 33 RB Aaron Jones releasing to the flat. 53 DE Charles Harris peels off once he reads pass to become the shallow defender. 6 S Ifeatu Melifonwu bails on the play-pass read to the deep zone while 23 CB Jerry Jacobs is in man coverage on 9 WR Christian Watson. Watson runs a dig at about the 20-yard line, which is what Love throws.

From the overhead angle, it certainly looks like Watson is open; he has a generous cushion from Jacobs on the dig and space to run into. Under normal circumstances, that is a good throw to make. However, Anzalone realizes what’s going on and stops his zone drop to reverse direction as Love is in mid-delivery.

Anzalone makes a heck of an effort to tip the ball, and Jacobs comes down with it. Two David Montgomery runs later, the Lions extended their lead to 24-3. Now let’s go a little later in the second quarter.

Week 4 DET at GBY, 2Q (7:03). Second-and-13 at the Green Bay 16.

This time the Packers are backed up in their own end (this is about three or four plays after the one-yard gain to Musgrave we looked at earlier) again. The play has a lone man beater dig to the left side by 87 WR Romeo Doubs and a screen fake with 81 TE Josiah Deguara “blocking” for 28 RB A.J. Dillon. If the defense bites and charges that, it opens up an alert deep corner to 9 WR Christian Watson down the left side. 85 TE Tucker Kraft is the safety valve in the middle of the field.

Here’s Jordan Love’s first read: Doubs on the left side. Guess what? He’s open! He has a ton of separation on 23 CB Jerry Jacobs and nobody home in the spot the dig runs into. But look at the circumstances and how closely they mimic what just happened in the first Jerry Jacobs interception. From field position to the route being run and down to the coverage players involved, the interception has to be looming in Jordan Love’s mind. Instead of throwing that dig like last time, he looks it off because he knows Alex Anzalone is lurking in the middle of the field.

The only problem is Anzalone spotted Kraft early and jumped on him immediately. Love comes back to throw his emergency outlet, but there’s Anzalone already in position to take it away.

Love has nowhere to go with the ball and eats an eight-yard sack from Alim McNeill. To finish this off, let’s return to the run game to see Anzalone setting his teammates up for success once more.

Week 3 ATL at DET, 4Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Detroit 43.

The Falcons motion 18 WR Mack Hollins to lead block, and have the entire line attacking right. 25 RB Tyler Allgeier takes the handoff and intends to hit back side behind the line pushing everybody to the right. The problem for the Falcons is that McNeill and Hutchinson completely blow up the interior blocking. When Hutchinson crashes left, the left tackle has to take him and is unable to double McNeill with the left guard. Unassisted, rookie 65 LG Matthew Bergeron is tossed to the floor by the Dream, who ends up running right at Allgeier’s track. Combined with Jerry Jacobs coming off the edge unblocked, the Lions have a great chance at a huge tackle for loss.

Both McNeill and Jacobs miss the tackle, though. This is a problem because Anzalone being blocked by 81 TE Jonnu Smith is now the last man on the edge since Jacobs rushed. Allgeier has good vision and burst, so if he can make it to the corner that turns what could have been a huge minus play into a solid plus play. S 32 Brian Branch is so far back in deep coverage that Allgeier would have a decent shot at making it to the sideline for seven-plus yards.

This is where Anzalone holds the line by staying alive against Smith. Shedding the block, Anzalone stretches the play out, impeding Allgeier’s run path to force him sideways. That buys time for Branch (boxed in yellow) to move up in run support.

Just like Anzalone told the media, the Lions’ run defense is a whole team defense concept. Although his effort on this play does not show up in the box score totals, what Anzalone did here absolutely limited what could have been a big run to merely a decent gain with help from Barnes and Branch swarming to the ball at the end.

When you consider the next three plays were a two-yard run followed by two incompletions to get the ball back on downs for the Lions, keeping this play to a moderate gain probably made more of a difference that it appeared at the time. Situationally, where the Falcons ended up had limited playcalling options; Fourth-and-1 would have been quite different from the fourth-and-4 the Falcons actually failed to convert. Just like I’ve argued David Montgomery adding two or three yards on his carries adds up to have outsized effects, these kinds of plays where Anzalone saves two or three yards in team defense adds up as well.

In the right role, A difference maker

The way to understand Alex Anzalone’s value to the Lions defense is that he’s a force multiplier. He won’t necessarily make the big splash plays on defense, but he makes the splash plays possible. If you’re looking for gaudy TFL or sack totals in box scores, Anzalone won’t dazzle. But if you are looking at what’s happening on the field and thinking about why the run defense is so efficient and why Lions defenders are getting sack and interception chances, it’s clear to see why the coaches think so highly of their defensive captain.

The team re-signed Anzalone to a new contract in March to keep him in Detroit through 2024 at the very least, and that deal is starting to look like a terrific investment by general manager Brad Holmes. Now that Anzalone is playing the position he was meant to take on, he’s creating tremendous opportunities for his defense.

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