Every young player in this league needs a veteran to show them the ropes. It's the most effective way to quickly transition into the NFL.
Alex Anzalone had veteran teammates to lean on as a rookie in New Orleans in 2017, and now the five-year vet is paying it forward with Lions rookie linebacker Derrick Barnes this season.
"I think it's big," Anzalone said this week of being a mentor to a young player like Barnes. "I take pride in that. I want to help him achieve his potential. It's hard being a rookie, especially playing middle linebacker in the league, so I just think it's one of those things I can do as an older player to bring him along quicker."
Anzalone plays middle linebacker in Detroit's defense when Jalen Reeves-Maybin is playing alongside him, and he shifts over to the weak side with Barnes playing the middle when Barnes rotates in. The Lions have been splitting reps between Barnes and Reeves-Maybin alongside Anzalone since the team moved on from veteran Jamie Collins Sr. earlier in the year.
Anzalone makes the defensive calls, but Barnes said Anzalone has been making sure he can do it too. Anzalone has Barnes make the calls right alongside of him so the rookie gets used to doing it.
"I was echoing the calls with Alex, something we have going on now," Barnes said this week. "He always reminds like, 'Hey, help me with the call.' Communication is key and I think it helps me as a player."
Barnes has to know the calls and be able to move fronts, and he says Anzalone does a great job in practice and walkthroughs showing him everything he's going to need to do when that time comes for Barnes to be the full-time MIKE linebacker running the show.
"It's huge. If you want to accelerate growth, you really do need good veterans that are pros," head coach Dan Campbell said Friday of Anzalone. "They know how to handle their business, and they're willing to bring those young guys along the right way and Alex does do that. It really is, it's huge.
"I think sometimes it's just as beneficial, if not even more than some of the coaching that goes with it. It helps astronomically. It's been really beneficial."
After playing just five snaps combined the first two weeks, Barnes has become a key rotational player on defense with 129 snaps the last five weeks. He's notched 27 tackles, one tackle for loss and a defended pass. He's getting better and better, with a big assist from Anzalone, who leads the team with 44 tackles.
SOMETHING GOOD, SOMETHING TO IMPROVE
The real evaluation of the first-half performance will take place next week for the Lions coaching staff during the bye week.
But quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell offered up a quick analysis of something good he's seen from quarterback Jared Goff through the first seven weeks and something he'd like to see improve moving forward.
"What I'm most impressed about Jared is just his preparation," Brunell said Friday. "It's tough right now. Yet his preparation, his attitude, his focus, him handling himself like a pro, you wouldn't know we haven't won a game the way he approaches every week regardless of what happened previously."
And something Brunell would like to see improve?
"Going forward, we need to take care of the ball better," he said. "That's not just Jared, that's all of us, coaches included. We have to do a better job of making sure that ball security is at a premium."
The Lions have 10 turnovers on the year and have a minus-three turnover differential, which ranks 22nd in the league. Their three turnovers in the opponent red zone are tied for the second most, and Goff's six fumbles (four lost) are both league highs.
The Lions currently have 15 players on injured reserve, but a few of them are back practicing in hopes of rejoining the active roster soon. Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, tackle Taylor Decker and defensive end Kevin Strong have returned to practice over the last few weeks. Of that group, Campbell said Hand is the closest to returning.
"I would say (Da'Shawn) Hand is the closest one to being ready to go and he's another, we'll see what he looks like today," Campbell said. "He had a pretty good day (Wednesday). We'll see how he feels after today's practice, how he wakes up in the morning or after today and go from there."
The Lions currently have two open roster spots ahead of Sunday's game vs. Philadelphia.
Detroit has to make a decision on Decker by next week. He was off to the side working with a trainer during Thursday's practice after suffering a setback in his return to practice a couple weeks ago.
"It's tough to say because all parties felt like it was the right time to do it," Campbell said Friday, when asked if he regrets starting Decker's 21-day window to be activated when the team did. "It felt like, hey, he wanted to give it a go and certainly we would love to have him back whenever he's capable. It's hard to look back and regret that move at the time knowing what we know and where we were all at, all parties, but here it is."
The Lions could choose to activate Decker and leave him on the roster until he's ready to play. Campbell said all options are on the table with Decker.