Detroit Lions veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone is playing the best football of his career.
He's become a playmaker for the Lions' defense, their leader in the middle, and a player who finishes at the football and makes sure the ball carrier knows it's him.
If there was some criticism thrown Anzalone's way a season ago it was for some of the missed tackles that popped up in his game. Before last season ended for him after 14 games due to a shoulder injury, Anzalone was leading the team and ranked in the top 10 in the NFL with 15 missed tackles, per Pro Football Reference statistics.
He knew he had to clean up that part of his game, and credit to him it's something that looks to be in the past.
"I feel like I've been playing my best football," Anzalone said Tuesday. "It's just when you start winning it gets a little bit more noticed. I feel like I've been playing at a high level all year and I'm starting to get recognition because we're winning."
Anzalone leads the Lions with 105 tackles through 14 games, the first 100-tackle performance of his career. He's also trimmed those missed tackles to a mere seven this season. He's recorded 1.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His 20 quarterback pressures this season rank as the third most among all linebackers by Pro Football Focus. He's really doing it all for this defense.
"This year he's just gone to another level," Lions linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard said of Anzalone. "Now he's really reaping the benefits of a lot of self-awareness things that he had to look in the mirror at this offseason. He looked at it head on and he was willing to put the work in and I know that meant a lot for him.
"He's been playing his butt off down in and down out dating back to training camp. I always preach finish on the ball and that's something Alex does religiously."
The Lions as a team last year led the NFL with 132 missed tackles. They've reduced that number to 48 through 14 games, which are the fifth fewest in the NFL.
"I mean you just make an emphasis of it, and that's something that we've talked about for a long time, and you've got to be able to tackle," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said of the reduction in missed tackles this season. "You've got to work it. We do work it, and we've done a good job. It was something that we identified and look, you want a good defense, you better be able to tackle. And you better get takeaways, and we're doing those things right now, so that's a credit to (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn and his staff."
Campbell was on the New Orleans coaching staff for Anzalone's first four NFL seasons with the Saints. When Anzalone became a free agent before last season, Campbell made the pitch for Anzalone to follow him to Detroit as a free-agent signing.
"Last year was the best I've ever seen him in all the years that we had him in New Orleans," Campbell said of Anzalone's career-high 78 tackles a season ago. "That was the best that I've seen him play and this year is even better. He's playing at a high level, he's the quarterback of our defense.
"He's versatile, he's a really good athlete. He's smart, he knows exactly what AG's looking for. He knows the situations that come up. He gets everything in order and he's another guy, man. He's a big locker room guy, man, the guys love him, and he knows – they know he'd do anything for them. So, he's playing at a high level and I'm glad we got him."
Rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, who has been a bright spot in his first season, gives Anzalone a lot of credit for helping him settle into NFL life.
"He's been a big help for me," he said. "Just helping me see things and diagnose things in what he sees and help me and be that bigger brother taking me under his wing. He puts confidence in other guys and makes other guys go out there and have fun and fly around."
The Lions' defense has played much faster and better football over their current 6-1 stretch. Anzalone's play and leadership has a been a big catalyst behind that.