Justin Rogers | The Detroit News
More than two decades later, it remains one of the more memorable Detroit Lions moments in franchise history.
In the 1997 regular-season finale against the New York Jets, the Lions needed a win to get into the playoffs, while superstar running back Barry Sanders needed 131 yards to become the third back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 in a season.
Lions fans remember the game well. So does Aaron Glenn, the team’s new defensive coordinator, who was a cornerback on the Jets and putting the finishing touches on the first of three All-Pro seasons.
The Jets, entering that day with a 9-6 record, also needed a win to earn a postseason berth.
At the half, things looked to be going New York’s way. Despite a Jason Hanson field goal at the end of the second quarter, the Jets took a 10-3 lead into the locker room. As for Sanders’ pursuit of 2,000 yards, the Jets had held him to 20 yards on eight carries at the break.
In the third quarter, the Lions chipped away at the lead with another Hanson field goal, but Sanders remained in a rut, gaining 3 yards on four carries.
Yet, as Sanders was wont to do, he broke free for a huge, 47-yard run on the final play of the quarter. And that momentum carried over to start the fourth frame. He carried the ball twice more for 24 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown to put the Lions out in front.
Still, Sanders remained 37 yards short of 2,000.
Trying to hold on to the narrow lead, the Lions fed Sanders on the next series, and he turned six carries into 35 more yards.
After another stalled Jets drive, the Lions took possession with a little more than two minutes remaining. On the first play, Sanders gained 2 yards, landing exactly on 2,000 as the Silverdome crowd celebrated the accomplishment.
But given Sanders’ penchant for an occasional negative run, the mark hung precariously in the balance. At least for one more play. Again, Sanders broke free up the middle, romping for his final 53 yards on the day.
Just before he could cross the goal line, Sanders was tackled from behind. By, you guessed it, Glenn.
“You really going to bring that back up?,” Glenn said with a smile when asked about his memories of that day. “Man, you know this story. Why you asking me this? No, but anyway, he didn’t have a lot of yards in the first half and the thing is, I thought we were winning the game and then he comes out the second half just on a tear. I remember the one play, right, he made a move on our corner Otis Smith. Otis Smith tried to trip him and missed him, and I tried to chase him down and I don’t know if he scored or what but when I chased him down, I looked up and that was his 2,000th yard. So I’m on tape for tackling Barry Sanders for his 2,000 yards. All right? That’s what you wanted to hear, right? I remember that and you do too.”
Tackling Sanders was always a tough challenge, but Glenn faces an even stiffer test trying to fix Detroit’s defense, which was statistically the worst in franchise history last year.
“We have to change that narrative of the players, of their thinking, so they can go out there and play with confidence and get them to play fast,” Glenn said. “What we’re going to do as a staff is make sure that happens. That’s our number one job; get the players playing fast, get ’em confident and let those guys let loose.”