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Detroit Lions 2023 season recap: 7 winners, 3 losers from defense, special teams

Recapping the 2023 Detroit Lions season with the best and worst defensive performances of the year.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Talk about a roller coaster. While the offense was consistent throughout the season, the Detroit Lions defense was the opposite of that. Overall, it was an improvement from the 2022 season, but while there were more good plays and games from this defense, the inconsistency was the central issue. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn did what he could with a depleted secondary that faced injuries all season.

Detroit was 23rd in points against, 27th in passing yards allowed, 27th in passing touchdowns, and ranked t-23rd in sacks The positive side is while the passing defense struggled, the run defense was stout. The Lions ended with the second fewest rushing yards allowed and third lowest yards per carry with 3.7, but 24th in rushing touchdowns allowed.

Special teams was also an inconsistent bunch, but mainly on the kicking side, as there were two kickers for Detroit this year. While one made a big kick in the playoffs, both stood out as a short-term solution. There are no rookie mentions in this article, as I already went over them earlier, so if you want to read about them, check it out!

And if you missed my winners/losers on the offense, check that out here.

Here are my winners and losers from the 2023 defense and special teams for the Detroit Lions.

Winners

Aidan Hutchinson

After coming up just short of winning Defensive Rookie of the Year last year, Hutchinson saw growth in his sophomore season. He finished the year with 51 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, a team-high 11.5 sacks, seven pass deflections, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. With the season he had, Hutchinson made his first-ever Pro Bowl after barely missing it last season.

Hutchinson had a solid start to the season with 4.5 sacks in the first five games, but then he went quiet, returning to the inconsistent part I mentioned earlier. Thankfully, he finished the season strong, getting 8.0 sacks in the final five games and coming up big when the team needed it. Hutchinson still has room to grow and can be even better than what we saw this season, and if he can train right and improve his skills, he could have a chance to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2024.

Alim McNeill

All offseason long in 2023, we heard about how defensive tackle Alim McNeill changed his lifestyle to be a better player, which proved valid during the season. While McNeill did miss four weeks due to injury, he finished the season with 32 tackles, six tackles for loss, five sacks, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble. McNeill elevated his game and helped the interior defensive line have a stud to help stop the run and get to the quarterback.

In 2024, McNeill can get even better, and if he gets some help on the defensive line beside Hutchinson, he could have a real chance to break out. McNeill and Hutchinson side by side is a dangerous duo, but they can’t do it all, and it’s why the Lions will need to bring in some help in the offseason this year.

Alex Anzalone

Well, we were all wrong about linebacker Alex Anzalone. In the offseason, others and I questioned the price tag Anzalone came with as he re-signed with the Lions in March 2023. Anzalone’s extension also came into question once the team drafted rookie linebacker Jack Campbell. Everyone expected Campbell to take over for Anzalone as the year progressed, but Anzalone didn’t want any part of that with his play.

Anzalone had a career year in 2022 and topped it with an even better one in 2023. He finished with a team-high 129 tackles, seven tackles for loss, six pass deflections, three sacks, and a fumble recovery. Anzalone proved his worth and is the leader of a young linebacker room that needs a strong veteran to guide them. Anzalone helped the linebackers elevate to be a helpful group this season and made it one that nobody needed to worry about.

Derrick Barnes

Continuing with the linebackers, Derrick Barnes had a breakout season, finishing with 81 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a sack, and a huge interception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Round to send the Lions to the NFC Title game. Barnes needed some time to develop in the league and can still improve. As you can recall, he missed an easy sack against the Dallas Cowboys.

Barnes became a starter on defense, starting in 13 games and playing in 16 in the regular season. Barnes is entering the final year of his contract in 2024, so if he can have another big season like 2023, he’s likely to stay in Detroit.

Ifeatu Melifonwu

Another player that fans and the media counted out was safety Ifeatu Melifonwu. Melifonwu had been dealing with injuries the past few seasons, and now that he was fully healthy, he shot up the depth chart as the season progressed. It also helped him, unfortunately, that safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson was injured in Week 2 and didn’t return until Week 18, giving Melifonwu chances to see the field.

In just six starts, Melifonwu finished with 33 tackles, eight pass deflections, four tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. Like Barnes, Melifonwu has another year left in his contract, and if he can stay healthy and play at the level he finished, Detroit would be wise to keep him around for a while. Melifonwu helped out a struggling secondary and created some big plays and turnovers when the Lions needed it most.

Kindle Vildor

Sometimes, a change of scenery can help a player. The Lions picked up cornerback Kindle Vildor as the Chicago Bears released him and put him on waivers. Detroit needed the secondary help, and Vildor came into work and did so. He wasn’t the best cornerback on the team, but he started climbing the depth chart once Detroit picked him up.

Vildor played in five regular season games, started two, and would remain the starter in the playoffs. He finished the year with 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, two pass deflections, and a forced fumble. Vildor did make some mistakes as well. Letting the ball bounce off his face and letting San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk catch it in the NFC title game is the biggest. Vildor is a free agent, and Detroit might be interested in seeing if he would want to come back, but more as a depth piece instead of a starter would be a good idea.

Jack Fox

The only winner on special teams this year is punter Jack Fox. While his net average was the lowest in his career, that is more of a reflection on how well the offense has been doing. Fox was constantly kicking from midfield, as evidenced by his career-high 26 punts inside the 20 and best 45.6% inside-the-20 percentage. He also had only five touchbacks on his 57 punts, for his second-lowest touchback percentage in his four-year career.

Losers

Charles Harris

What a fall for defensive end Charles Harris. The Lions picked him up in 2021, and he had a career year. The Lions saw something in him and decided to give him a two-year extension. Last season wasn’t that good, and this year was worse. Harris was voted team captain but played in only 13 games and started just three. By the season’s end, he was a healthy scratch, including for all three playoff games. Harris finished the year with just 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

Harris is a free agent in 2024. He is a veteran and could help the young defensive line out with his presence, and as a captain, the players respect him. But Detroit needs more playmakers on the defensive line, and Harris isn’t that. If he does come back, expect a cheap, one-year deal to be a backup.

Cornerbacks

Outside Vildor, the Lions’ cornerback department was rough this season. Detroit’s top free agent signing, Cameron Sutton, had a strong start to the year but had a final seven games to forget. Sutton had 65 tackles, six pass deflections, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception. Sutton couldn’t seem to handle coverage against some of the top wide receivers in the game, and when Detroit needed him to slow them down, he couldn’t.

It doesn’t help that another free agent signing, Emmanuel Moseley, was returning from a torn ACL and tore his other ACL in the first game back, ending his season after just two snaps. Detroit might bring him back for a do-over in 2024, but I wouldn’t blame them if they go elsewhere for help. Jerry Jacobs had to step up as a starter with Moseley out, and while Jacobs had some good moments, there was more bad than good this year. Jacobs was eventually benched and finished with 55 tackles, eight pass deflections, three interceptions, and two tackles for loss.

The depth in this position group could be better, too, and it should be something the Lions target to sign in free agency and draft in the NFL Draft in April. Players like Will Harris and Khalil Dorsey are acceptable in a pinch, but if you need more from them, that is asking for a lot. This position was the worst this season, and if Detroit is going to appear in the Super Bowl next season, it starts with fixing their cornerback room.

Kicking game

The biggest issue on special teams this season was the kicking game. Detroit had a kicking competition in the offseason between three guys, and the winner was Riley Patterson, the former Lion they had to trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars to get back. Patterson went 15-for-17 on field goal attempts and 35-for-37 on extra point attempts. Patterson's longest kick was from 52 yards out, but his two misses were from 26 and 52.

The Lions let him go and elevated Michael Badgley from the practice squad late in the season, but Badgley didn’t do much to separate himself from Patterson. While Badgley went 4-for-4 on field goals and made a 54-yard field goal against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Wildcard round, his struggles were also on extra points. Badgley went 13-for-15 on extra points (one blocked). Against the 49ers, Campbell clearly didn’t trust Badgley’s range, so he went for it on fourth down, and it failed, hurting the team and leading to the downfall.

Detroit must figure out what they will do at kicker in the offseason. General manager Brad Holmes has been great at finding talent, but he has yet to make a good move when it comes to kicker. Holmes and his crew must find a better kicker—something long-term—or this will continue to hurt the Lions in every game.

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