John Niyo | The Detroit News
They saw what you saw. So we’re all on the same page to start with, at least, when it comes to the Lions’ defense.
And that’s more than we’ve been able to say here in a while. Because it went bad quickly, and by the end of Matt Patricia’s three-year tenure as the Lions’ head coach, his defense was unquestionably the worst in the NFL.
But now as a new regime gets settled in Allen Park, and a new coaching staff tries to figure out where to begin with this rebuilding project, this seems like the most important part of the blueprint to me. More than any debate about Jared Goff’s long-term viability as the starting quarterback or Anthony Lynn’s efforts to build a dependable run game or even Dan Campbell’s threats of cannibalism.
“The No. 1 thing that we’re gonna do as a staff is, we’re gonna make sure that it’s not scheme then players,” said Aaron Glenn, the new defensive coordinator who spent the last five years with Campbell on Sean Payton’s staff in New Orleans.
And after being force-fed the Patriot Way in Detroit, that sure sounds more palatable, doesn’t it? The notion that it’s the players that win the games, not the coaches or the system?
No one is under any illusions that the Lions had enough in any category the last couple of years as the Lions went 8-23-1. And though injuries were a factor in the bottom falling out for the defense last winter, the final numbers really did match what fans felt as they watched opponents doing mostly as they pleased on a weekly basis. Detroit finished last in the league in points allowed and yards allowed and, quite frankly, since we’re allowed to editorialize in this space, they really weren’t any fun to watch.
Patricia’s conservative, two-gap approach at the line of scrimmage proved maddeningly ineffective, as the Lions got chewed up on the ground. They gave up 259 rushing yards to the Packers in September, 275 to the Vikings in November, and 195 to the Titans in December. They also ranked dead last in quarterback pressures again with one of the lowest blitz percentages in the league.
And coupled with an over-reliance on man-to-man coverage in the secondary — predictably so when it mattered most — it was a recipe for disaster. Opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating (112.4) against the Lions that was higher than Patrick Mahomes’ season average.
Campbell and Glenn got a first-hand look at all that early last October, when the Saints – playing without some key offensive starters – marched up and down the field with ease in a 35-29 win at Ford Field. But the Lions’ new coaches have had a chance to take a longer look in recent weeks, breaking down film to see exactly what they have in this roster they’ve inherited. And what stood out to both of them was how “slow” the Lions seemed to be playing on defense.
“It just looks like there’s indecision,” Campbell said. “It looks like they’re timid. They look like they had lacked confidence.”
So that’s where Glenn wants to start whenever he gets the chance, though the potential of another all-virtual offseason looms this spring amid the pandemic.
“We have to change that narrative of the players, of their thinking, so they can go out and play with confidence and get ’em to play fast,” Glenn said. “What we’re gonna do as a staff is make sure that happens. That’s our No. 1 job, right? Get the players playing fast, get ’em confident, and let those guys let it loose. We don’t need a lot of thinking out there.”
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That way of thinking likely will be well-received in the locker room, particularly with younger players who often seemed a bit lost, their reactions slowed by indecision and their growth stunted by a system that seemed overly complicated.
“You look at the tape, you see guys in stacks and in bunches, and they don’t know what to do,” Glenn said. “We want to make sure that’s not happening with our guys. … When you’re not confused, you’re able to play fast. You know what you’re doing and then you can go make plays. We want these guys to do that as much as they can. I’m not saying we’re gonna be simple to where we’re a target. But we’re gonna be simple enough for our guys to know exactly what they’re doing.”
What they’re doing now is figuring out who’ll stay and who can go, before diving into free agency and the draft. And while Glenn says it’s too early to make any definitive statements about the roster — one that needs an infusion of speed, to be sure — he had plenty of good things to say about defensive end Romeo Okwara, who’s a pending free agent, as well as Trey Flowers up front.
As for the beleaguered secondary, Glenn sounds bullish on the young prospects there, too, namechecking cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Aman Oruwariye on Wednesday, as well as safeties Tracy Walker and Will Harris.
“It kind of reminds me of my first year in New Orleans when I had a young secondary with Marshon Lattimore, Von Bell, Marcus Williams, all those young guys,” said Glenn, who’ll have Aubrey Pleasant — the Rams’ cornerbacks coach since 2017 — coaching the defensive backs in Detroit. “You get to grow these guys as pups. I’m excited about that. We get to mold those guys to exactly how I want those guys to play.”
And for Glenn, a Bill Parcells disciple much like Campbell, he gets to shape this defense in his own image as a first-time coordinator, an opportunity that clearly has him jacked. He knows the scheme he’d like to run, synthesizing what he learned from the likes of Bill Parcells and Vic Fangio and Dom Capers, the 70-year-old defensive guru Glenn has brought to Detroit as a senior assistant. Capers, who spent last season in a similar role with the Vikings, also was Green Bay’s coordinator for nearly a decade, so he certainly knows the territory in the NFC North.
“I joked with him the other day, saying he’s making his rounds in this division,” Glenn said. “But he’s a dang good coach … and he brings a wealth of knowledge to this team, which will help me quite a bit.”
So will Glenn’s own experience, though, both as a player and a rising star in the NFL coaching ranks, even interviewing for the New York Jets’ top job last month.
It’s worth noting that the Saints ranked last in the NFL in pass defense in Glenn’s first year coaching the secondary in New Orleans. Four years later, they ranked No. 1 in the league. So the former All-Pro cornerback who played 15 years in the league has a track record he can point to, even if this is his first time calling the shots.
Yet he also has an understanding of what it means to be a player, and what they need to hear. Namely, that it’s not about the system, it’s about them. That’s the message he’s ready to start delivering in Detroit, and after what we’ve seen the last few years, I’d imagine he’ll find a pretty receptive audience.