Alex Anzalone couldn't resist. After blanketing Khalil Herbert on a third down pass to the end zone, the Lions linebacker and co-captain jawed at the Bears running back a la Richard Sherman defending Michael Crabtree.
"Little competitive juice in there, like, 'Don’t try me with that route,'" Anzalone said with a grin after the Lions' comeback win over the Bears.
Anzalone has earned the right to talk some trash. He was on the other side of it for most of this first two seasons with the Lions, an easy target in Detroit's struggling defense. When things went wrong, Anzalone bore most of the blame. So give the man his due. He was everywhere, once again, in the Lions' latest win, racking up a career-high 15 tackles while playing every defensive snap for the seventh time this year.
Opposing teams have thrown at Anzalone frequently this season, trying to expose him in coverage. The way he smothered Herbert is a reminder that it hasn't really worked. He's on pace for a career high in passes defended.
"I mean, I don’t know why my guy keeps getting the ball thrown to him. I don’t know how many times I have to prove, don’t throw at my guy, he’s not open," Anzalone said. "I feel like if it was an accurate pass (to Herbert), I was ready to pick it off."
Anzalone isn't here to tell you he's perfect. He deserved some of the criticism that came his way the past two seasons. He was guilty of missing tackles or arriving late to the ball; the tackles he did make seemed to come at the end of big gains. Anzalone was also trying to serve as the link of an undermanned and sometimes disjointed defense. His mistakes were magnified as the man in the middle, and literally highlighted by a mane of maniacal blonde hair.
As the scrutiny increased, the Lions' coaching staff defended him. One thing Anzalone was never guilty of, they said, was blown assignments. He could be counted on to play his role within the defense, which was important for a young group learning to play as a unit. And your memory might deceive you: Anzalone was actually pretty reliable in coverage. Even the advanced stats bear this out. He allowed a passer rating in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, of 90.8 last year and 85.6 the year before that.
This year he's busting the narrative that he's easy prey for quarterbacks. (It's actually Anzalone who's been doing the hunting, with career highs in sacks and quarterback hits 10 games into the season.) He's allowed a rating of 86.4, not that he puts much stock into anything anyone says outside the walls of Allen Park.
"Put it this way, when I watch film, it’s hard for me tell what coverages other team are in and whose responsibility is what. So when you go to PFF and stuff like that, they just put a minus on whoever was closest to the ball, when it’s a zone coverage. There’s give and take with that. If you ask the coaches, they’ll tell you I’m probably one of the better cover linebackers in the league," Anzalone said.
This isn't about PFF, but while we're here: Anzalone ranked 56th out of 60 qualifying linebackers his first season with the Lions, 40th out of 56 in his second and now 14th out of 50 in his third. Lots of players raise their game in contract seasons. Anzalone is doing just the opposite, playing the best ball of his career after cashing in with an $18 million deal this offseason.
He said earlier this season that there's a freedom that comes with getting paid: "You talk to guys on contract years or even guys on their rookie deals trying to earn spots, you can’t really play as free as you want to. Having that experience and that (assurance), it allows you to fly around and make plays. And if you miss a tackle just flying around, F it, you know what I mean?"
But the biggest difference for Anzalone this season is that he's getting most of his snaps at weak-side linebacker, which he considers his "true position." He says he feels "a lot more comfortable playing a little more in space and in coverage, not as much A gap to B gap and striking linemen." That comfort in year three in Aaron Glenn's defense has allowed Anzalone's abilities to shine.
"100 percent," he said. "I’m playing Will linebacker the whole game and last year I was going back and forth from Mike to Will in a series, just based off the guys that we had in the rotation. So I’m able to get settled a lot more than just being the guy that can do everything."
He did do everything Sunday. His most crucial play came against the run when he stuffed Justin Fields on 3rd and 1 to hold the Bears to a field goal early in the fourth quarter. He also recovered a fumble forced by Cam Sutton in the second quarter that led to the Lions' first touchdown. It wasn't a banner day for Detroit's defense, which allowed 26 points to a mediocre offense, but "26 points with four turnovers is not necessarily the worst stat line ever," said Anzalone.
"It’s no excuse for letting up points, but we were put up in some tough spots defensively," he said.
Anzalone was put in a tough spot when he arrived in Detroit, asked to hold together a defense that was doomed by inexperience and a lack of talent. He took a lot of bullets in the process, some of them strays. Even this offseason, his contract was deemed an overpay, at least on the outside. He's showing you why the Lions always trusted him on the inside.