Since their tenure began in 2021, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell have done an excellent job at identifying talent, and then developing that talent into legitimate NFL players. Some may take longer than others, but more often than not, this coaching staff assembled by Campbell finds a way.
Against the Denver Broncos in Week 15, third-year safety Ifeatu Melifonwu made plays all over the field for the Lions, showcasing the tantalizing potential that made him a third-round pick out of Syracuse back in the 2021 NFL draft.
At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Melifonwu possesses a rare blend of size, speed, and quick-twitch athleticism. And despite it being his third year in the NFL, Melifonwu is still just 24 years old.
Another crazy aspect of his development? He has only been playing the safety position for going on two years now, after playing cornerback in college and most of 2021. He logged 48 snaps at safety back in Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons, and then 46 in the Lions’ Week 4 win over the Green Bay Packers.
However, he again took a backseat after Week 4 as veteran safety Tracy Walker got the nod to start alongside Kerby Joseph, leaving Melifonwu to special teams duty.
But after the coaching staff decided to make another change to give the defense a much-needed jolt, Melifonwu was inserted back into the starting lineup in Week 14 against the Chicago Bears, where he would log 70 snaps as a starter.
Against the Broncos, Melifonwu had his most impressive day as a Lion, logging nine total tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, two quarterback hits, and two pass breakups. Melifonwu was seemingly everywhere for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn’s defense, and I love the way that he and his staff put the safety in positions that best fit his skill set.
Because after all, that is what good coaching is about.
Let’s get into the All-22 film and see just how Melifonwu was able to leave his mark in the Lions’ 42-17 thumping of the Denver Broncos.
Second-and-10 on the Detroit 20. 11:49 left in the first quarter
Denver’s first offensive possession began with such promise. A 40-yard catch-and-run by Broncos’ receiver Jerry Jeudy got them on the Lions’ side of the field, and gave Denver a chance to get out to an early lead.
Unfortunately for Denver, sometimes the defense just has your number. That was the case on Melifonwu’s first big play of the day—a strip sack on Broncos’ quarterback Russell Wilson that ended in a turnover.
Lined up in the box next to rookie linebacker Jack Campbell to counter Denver’s heavy look of two tight ends, Melifonwu does a nice job of not tipping his hand pre-snap.
“It’s crazy because that play I had the strip sack, we ran it every day in practice to the same play,” said Melifonwu after the game. “And they ran the exact same play. I blitz on the left because he is a righty, and he rolls back and doesn’t see me.”
Credit to the Lions’ coaching staff for having this particular blitz installed against this concept, and credit to Melifonwu for making the play when it was there for the taking. Players are coached over and over again—get that ball out. Force turnovers, and change the game.
Before Wilson can really turn around and assess the defense, Melifonwu is on him in an instant, ending Denver’s first series before they can come away with any points.
Second-and-4 on the Denver 46. 1:52 left in the first quarter
Next up, we again have Meliwonfu in the box, and much like he did during the entire course of the game, he does a great job of being both aggressive and decisive against the run.
The pre-snap shift of tight end Adam Trautman (82) causes Melifonwu, as well as linebackers Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes to slide in order to match personnel.
From there, both defensive lineman Josh Paschal and rookie defensive back Brian Branch do an excellent job of occupying their blocks, allowing Melifonwu to knife into the backfield and make the initial hit on Denver running back Javonte Williams.
Second-and-10 on the Denver 25. 12:25 left in the second quarter
Next we have a similar play to the one above, where Melifonwu is again tasked with getting downhill and being an integral part of the run-fit.
After motioning receiver Courtland Sutton in tight behind the in-line tight end, Melifonwu begins taking steps towards the line of scrimmage, even before the ball is being snapped. The entire defensive line holds their spot along the line, and in doing so, they give players like Melifonwu, Branch, and Anzalone a chance to run to the ball carrier.
With his size and athletic profile, Melifonwu has the capability to play just about anywhere on the field as a defensive back. But sometimes against the run, it’s all about a defender’s mentality. Which is why seeing him be this aggressive in run-fits was a really welcomed sight.
Second-and-2 on the Denver 29. 7:45 left in the second quarter
I hate to use the term only because I feel like I use it every other week, but this is teach tape for young defensive backs out there. This time Melifonwu is back in a two-deep look alongside Kerby Joseph, and as the ball is being handed off, Melifonwu begins getting downhill to fill.
This play is initially blocked pretty well by Denver, but it ended up not mattering because of how fast Melifonwu was able to react. He breaks down in the hole, and puts a solid hit on Denver running back Jaleel McLaughlin, stopping the runner for a 1-yard pickup.
Time and time again, Melifonwu made plays like this against the run. Not bad when you consider his natural position was outside cornerback up until a year ago.
Third-and-10 on the Denver 32. 4:35 left in the second quarter
I love this look from Aaron Glenn here. Third-and-long, and up to this point, the Lions had done a nice job of hurrying Wilson when he dropped back to pass.
Pre-snap, Wilson likely thinks that it will be a standard rush where all four defensive linemen rush the passer—especially given the look the Lions are presenting. But as the ball is snapped, second-year edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson drops off into coverage, while linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Melifonwu both blitz.
And because Meliwonfu’s rush began from his deep safety spot, the Broncos’ offensive line doesn’t have him accounted for pre-snap. From there, Melifonwu uses his closing speed to track down Wilson and force an incompletion.
Make no mistake about it, that is a lot of ground to cover for anyone. But Melifonwu is one of those rare athletes that can bend the rules a bit.
Second-and-3 on the Detroit 3. 10:46 left in the third quarter
I know we have already talked about Melifonwu’s rare athletic gifts a few times in this article, but get ready to hear about them again.
Now we are in the second half, and thanks to a questionable 44-yard defensive pass interference call against the Lions, the Broncos are in business down inside the Lions’ 5-yard line.
Between the pulling action of Broncos’ wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and the play fake being sold really well by Wilson, I can’t really blame Melifonwu for initially biting on the run-action.
His first few steps towards the line of scrimmage leave him out of phase for the moment, but thanks to those aforementioned gifts, Meliwonfu is able to force wide receiver Brandon Johnson out of bounds before he can get two feet down.
The timing. The closing speed. The physicality at the moment of truth when Johnson goes up to get the ball—all on display here for Melifonwu as he makes yet another big play for this Lions’ secondary.
First-and-10 on the Detroit 40. 4:12 left in the third quarter
Lastly we have Melifonwu making one last big play, only this time far away from the line of scrimmage.
Already down 28-10 with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Broncos try a shot play down the middle of the field to tight end Lucas Krull. With the Lions in a two-deep shell, Wilson appears to know where he wants to go with the ball from the jump, keeping his eyes fixated towards the middle of the field, where Krull is sprinting up the seam.
Early on, Melifonwu flips his hips and commits to bracketing wide receiver Courtland Sutton along with cornerback Cam Sutton. For Wilson, that is all he needs to see to uncork this shot to Krull.
Unfortunately for Wilson, Melifonwu sees this developing, and begins working his head and body around to the middle of the field. To even be in the right position here is a testament to Iffy’s awareness and incredible range. And to Wilson’s credit, this isn’t a bad pass.
He gives the 6-foot-6 Krull a chance to come down with it, but thanks to his 41-inch vertical, Melifonwu is able to meet Krull at the high point of this pass, and prevents the big tight end from coming down with what would have been a huge gain for Denver.
It will be interesting to see what Melifonwu’s role will be moving forward. Lions safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson is nearing his return to the field after suffering a torn pec way back in Week 2, and despite an up-and-down sophomore season from Kerby Joseph, I don’t think there is a world in which you want to take him off of the field.
So where does that leave Melifonwu over the home stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs? If you ask me, Glenn will need to find some snaps for him. He flashed way too much ability over the last two weeks to have him only logging snaps on special teams.
Maybe they can use him as a big-nickel in certain personnel packages? Or maybe as a third safety? Either way, finding a role for another versatile chess piece in the secondary is a good problem to have.