The Detroit Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-23 in the Divisional round of the 2023-24 NFL playoffs, with the game-sealing interception coming from an unexpected source: third-year linebacker Derrick Barnes.
Barnes path to this moment is one of patience and perseverance.
After spending three years as an edge rusher at Purdue, Barnes switched to an off-the-ball linebacker position as a senior. When the 2021 NFL draft arrived, his lack of experience dropped him to the third day, but his talent was appealing enough that Detroit general manager Brad Holmes traded up 40 spots in the fourth round—from pick No. 153 to get to pick No. 113—to make sure he would be a Lion.
Over the next two seasons, Barnes would fight for playing time, learning to play every linebacker role in the Lions defense in an effort to get on the field. And while he showed steady improvement, his uphill battle got even more challenging when the Lions selected Jack Campbell with No. 18 overall pick in the first round of the 2023 NFL draft.
Barnes entered training camp having averaged less than 40% of defensive snaps over his first two seasons, but his growth and development ahead of his third season in the NFL gave an opportunity to challenge for a starting MIKE linebacker role.
“That is a player that I have seen walk in this building since we started Phase 2 and looked like a completely different player,” linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said in the spring. “I mean, a kid growing into a man, taking charge, holding people accountable, running the huddle, letting everybody know, ‘I know what I’m doing. Now let me help you out.’”
In camp, Barnes was very open in discussing the pressure he felt to seize the starting role, noting that it was distracting him from playing at a high level. But after receiving some advice from a close friend, he was able to take a step back and gain a different perspective. He learned to let the pressure disapate, and in doing so, his game leveled up. Barnes earned the starting role out of camp and has played on nearly 70% of the Lions defensive snaps this season.
Entering the Divisional round playoff game against the Buccaneers—his 50th game in the league—Barnes had 197 career tackles but had never secured a turnover. Over the course of the game, he added another four tackles to his total, and just over a minute and a half left in the game, Barnes undercut a seam route from Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield and got his first career interception.
“Yeah, I’m proud of Derrick,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said following the win. “Derrick, he’s one of our guys that we drafted in the first year here and he was a later bloomer guy. It took him a little bit and then he really came on this season and he’s playing at a high level. One of the biggest areas he’s grown at, is not only just being able to up his level of play on defense, but his psyche. Something bad happens, something doesn’t quite go the way you want it to, man, he’s able to bounce back in a big way and it doesn’t affect him negatively. Man, he just keeps going. That’s where I feel the most growth and it’s why he’s playing at a high level. But that was a—what a huge play.”
In the locker room, Barnes deservedly got the game ball from Campbell, but Barnes was quick to credit coaches—Campbell, Sheppard, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn—and his teammates for supporting him and helping him get this opportunity.
“It’s a great feeling,” Barnes shared with the media. “Like I said, I can’t thank myself. I have to thank my teammates and the people who believed in me.”
When asked about his path to this moment, Barnes reflected on the obstacles he had to overcome, and how it helped him get to the point where he is today.
“I just had to set myself aside and remember who I am and what I do this for,” Barnes explained. “You know, I came a long way from where I come from. I was always in the background of things, but God is good, and I always believed in myself—even when other people didn’t. They said I wouldn’t go to D1 (division one college football). They said I wouldn’t go to the NFL. And so this moment means a lot. Like I said, I don’t really car about the outside noise, I know who I am as a person and as a football player, and I’ll continue to grow and do what I do.”
As for the moment itself, Barnes said he is still processing the significance of it all.
“It’s wild,” Barnes continnued. “Everybody’s like, ‘You don’t understand how legendary it is. I honestly didn’t do it for that. I could care less about the press I get after that. That was for my team. That was for the city of Detroit because they deserve it. We fought our ass off—excuse my language—to get where we are.”
More than once, Barnes said how challenging it was to express his feelings, but it was easy to see the joy on his face when thinking about it.
“What the hell just happened? Did I just seal this game?” Barnes smiled when reflecting on the moment the ball arrived in his hands. “First career interception. My son’s first game. A lot of emotions going through me. I can’t really explain it. It’s amazing.”