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With no Alex Anzalone, Lions rookie LB Jack Campbell is ‘built for these moments’

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is confident in Jack Campbell stepping up in replacement of Alex Anzalone vs. the Saints.

Las Vegas Raiders v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions struggling defense will almost certainly be missing its centerpiece this week against the New Orleans Saints. Linebacker Alex Anzalone, who is having arguably his best professional year, is suffering from a hand injury that is expected to hold him out for at least this week.

But Lions coaches aren’t sweating it. For two years running, the Lions have boasted about their linebacker depth, and it only got deeper this offseason with the addition of first-round pick Jack Campbell. The former Iowa Hawkeye has been mostly splitting time with third-year defender Derrick Barnes at the MIKE position. But with Anzalone out, Barnes is likely to replace him, leaving the full-time MIKE role to Campbell this week.

“That’s the reason we got Jack,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said this week. “He’s a true MIKE backer. And he has to be the one that makes all those checks and he’s capable of doing that. Smart, heady guy that’s tough. He’s built for these moments. I’m looking forward for him to be the actual mouthpiece of the defense going into this game.”

Communication may seem like a daunting task for a rookie linebacker, but it’s hardly a new role for Campbell. At Iowa, he was a two-time captain and the centerpiece of the Hawkeyes’ dominating defense.

“The thing I appreciate is just the kind of person he was, the energy he brought to our building every day, the relationships he had with his teammates,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said back in April. “His leadership capabilities, which at that position, that’s a really important trait. Obviously, you’ve got to be able to make plays, make tackles and cover passes. All that stuff, too. But when a guy brings leadership at that position, it’s a really critical thing. We played really good team defense the last couple of years, and Jack’s been a major component of that.”

It’s been an up-and-down season for Campbell thus far, which is to be expected of any rookie in such a critical position. Detroit has also put him in difficult situations, trying out him as a pass rusher at times—an unfamiliar role for the athletic 6-foot-5, 243-pounder. Still, he’s managed to make a handful of big plays this year, tallying two tackles for loss, a sack and a picture-perfect pass breakup of a Patrick Mahomes pass in the opener.

And when he’s not being tested or learning from his opportunities on the field, Glenn is making sure he’s growing in the film room, too.

“When we’re in meetings, and sometimes I tell Alex (Anzalone) don’t say anything because it’s easier for him for the most part,” Glenn said. “The next voice that you’re going to hear is Jack and that’s encouraging because what he does in the meeting actually translates to what he’s going to do on the field. And he understands this defense like the back of his hands now.”

That knowledge will be put to the test this week in a very important game for the Lions. While the Saints offense has not been great this year (18th in points per game), the Lions defense is allowing 29.0 points per game over the past five games. With Detroit in the midst of a division run, they can’t afford a slip-up against another hopeful NFC playoff contender.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.