Veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone had a good analogy when comparing Detroit's defensive performance the first eight weeks of the season when they started 1-6, to the play of that unit from Weeks 9-18, when the team finished 8-2.
"I feel like we started to hit our stride," Anzalone said. "Whatever week that was, 10 weeks ago, we made some adjustments personnel-wise, we made some adjustments schematically and it worked out for us. It's like you're failing a couple tests early in the semester and it's really hard to recoup back from it later on."
That's certainly the case when looking at the defensive numbers as a whole for the Lions at the end of the year. Detroit finished 30th in points allowed and 32nd in total defense. Through the first eight weeks of the season the Lions were allowing 32.1 points per game, which was last in the NFL. They improved that number to 20.2 points per game over the season's final 10 weeks, which ranked 11th best in the league over that stretch.
Anzalone was a big factor in that turnaround as the defensive play caller and quarterback of the defense. He finished with a career-high 125 tackles, achieving a goal he set for himself at the beginning of the season to eclipse 120 tackles on the year. His 21 total quarterback pressures were the fourth most among all linebackers this season, and he was one of only two linebackers in the league to have at least 115 tackles to go along with a sack, interception, fumble recovery and forced fumble.
Now Lions general manager Brad Holmes has a decision to make as Anzalone heads for unrestricted free agency. Detroit was playing much better defense the second half of the season but there's expected to be considerable resources spent on improving that unit overall. Where does Anzalone fit into the mix?
"I feel like obviously it's a fit, but there are multiple layers to that," Anzalone said right after the season ended about signing back in Detroit. "I'm going into Year 7 and you have to take care of your family, but I love Dan (Campbell) and AG (Aaron Glenn) and love what they are doing here."
Anzalone signed a one-year deal last offseason and it sounds like he'll be looking for some longer-term security on his next deal. Culture and leadership are important to both Holmes and Campbell, and Anzalone definitely checks off both of those boxes.
View photos of the Detroit Lions linebackers from the 2022 NFL season.
There's little doubt that if the defense had played more like they did the second half of the season during the first eight weeks of the year the Lions likely would have been a playoff team. That's the goal in 2023.
"I feel like there's unfinished business as the team goes," Anzalone said. "I feel like if we made the playoffs not a lot of teams would want to see us. You can argue we were playing top five in the league as a team (to end the year).
"Just dealing with adversity throughout the season and watching the young guys develop and put together a winning season is awesome."