How Saints turned around a historically bad defense and what Lions can learn from it

Detroit News

Allen Park — It’s difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons in the NFL, but Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has experienced an impressive turnaround in his recent past and it’s worth exploring what carryover, if any, applies from his five seasons in New Orleans to his current challenge.

When Glenn joined the Saints in 2016, the team was coming off a historically bad season, allowing the most passing touchdowns in one year, while ranking last in points and 31st in yards surrendered.

In Glenn’s first season as the team’s defensive backs coach, the Saints made modest improvements, but the defense still ranked near the bottom of the NFL in many key categories, including points (31st), yards (27th), passer rating against (29th) and third-down conversion percentage (28th).

But slowly, through key free-agent and draft additions, the Saints managed to flip their script. The defense would finish in the top-half of the league in scoring each of the next four seasons, peaking at fifth in 2020, Glenn’s final year with the franchise.

Scanning the top-15 defensive snap counts from 2016 to 2020 paints a clearer picture of how the improvements were made. The two lists have minimal overlap, sharing just three names, but that group includes a franchise-caliber talent, defensive end Cameron Jordan.

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A first-round pick in 2011, Jordan was a top performer even when the rest of New Orleans’ defense was shaky, earning Pro Bowl selections in 2013 and 2015, while recording double-digit sacks both years.

In Detroit, Glenn didn’t inherit a player of Jordan’s caliber — a true tone-setting leader and producer in the early stages of his prime. The closest thing might be safety Tracy Walker, who is no doubt a quality player, but not even on the fringes of Pro Bowl conversations through his first four seasons.

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Also on both lists were two additional defensive linemen, Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, who were both rookies in 2016. If you’re looking for potentially easy comps in Detroit, you have first-year linemen Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike. The pair of Day 2 draft picks are viewed as foundational pieces who should ideally develop into key cogs over the next few seasons.

The remaining top contributors to the 2020 Saints defensive roster were added along the way. Safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Demario Davis, the only two players to see more than 1,000 snaps that season, were both free-agent additions.

Jenkins, a three-time Pro Bowler who started his career in New Orleans, brought star power and leadership to Glenn’s group in the back end.

Davis, meanwhile, was just putting his career together. At 29, he was off to his best season, recording 135 tackles and five sacks in a second stint with the New York Jets, the team that drafted him in the third round five years earlier. Signed to a reasonable three-year, $24 million deal, he proved worth every penny, racking up more than 100 tackles, and 10 for a loss, each year of that contract.

The next three biggest workloads in 2020 belonged to a trio of draft picks in the defensive backfield that Glenn worked with and directly developed — Marcus Williams, Marshon Lattimore and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Paired with Jenkins, they helped turn the Saints’ secondary from porous to solid.

That back end was rounded out by cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a low-risk, high-reward, late-season waiver claim in 2019, who ended up re-signing after the season, as well as P.J. Williams, a do-everything defensive back the team drafted in 2015.

Joining Davis in the linebacker corps was Alex Anzalone, a third-round pick in 2017 and Kwon Alexander, a former Pro Bowler who came over in a midseason trade in 2020.

And up front, joining the aforementioned 2016 holdovers, you had more draft investments with 2017 third-rounder Trey Hendrickson and 2018 first-rounder Marcus Davenport.

So what can we learn from New Orleans’ turnaround?

First and foremost, it’s reasonable to expect a significant investment in talent and a consistently successful development of draft picks. The Lions have started that process in Glenn’s first year, using five of their seven draft picks on defensive players.

It’s also worth noting that most of those 2020 producers in New Orleans weren’t particularly effective as rookies, including Onyemata, Hendrickson and Davenport. That should provide perspective when looking at the early contributions of Onwuzurike and linebacker Derrick Barnes in Detroit this season. We’re likely to have a much clearer picture of their abilities by the middle of their third seasons.

It also means the Lions need to continue to build up Glenn’s assets through future drafts, including this one, where they have an opportunity to add a premium piece or two in the first 35 picks.

And eventually, potentially even starting this offseason, the Lions will need to target some long-term pieces in free agency. In general manager Brad Holmes’ first offseason, the team’s additions through this avenue were primarily one-year stopgaps, including Anzalone. That’s fine the first year of a rebuild and salary cap reset, but doesn’t equate to the Saints’ additions of Malcolm Jenkins and Davis.

It’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on Williams, a pending free agent, this offseason. The Lions could certainly use help at safety, even if they re-sign Walker. Williams’ playmaking in the back end (15 interceptions in five seasons) was a key factor in New Orleans’ improvements and he could be a similar catalyst for Glenn a second time in Detroit.

It’s worth acknowledging, despite a comparatively barer cupboard, and injuries robbing him of some of his best talent in Romeo Okwara, Jeff Okudah and even Trey Flowers, Glenn already has the Lions on the right track. It just might not feel like it following last week’s 51-29 drubbing at the hands of the Seahawks.

Much like when he arrived in New Orleans, the Lions were coming off a historically bad season, allowing more yards and points than any time in franchise history. This year, the team is allowed 39.9 fewer yards and and 5.1 fewer points.

That’s not insignificant. Now, it’s up to Glenn, the team’s other defensive assistants and Holmes to try and replicate the successes the coordinator experienced at his last stop, even if the path and names along it will be different.

“The thing that I think that was most important is the players didn’t waver and the coaching staff didn’t waver,” Glenn said. “There is a belief system that we have and we continue to believe that. And once you start to get that, the players really start to understand the culture of the team. You start seeing teams start winning consistently after that. To me, I see it the same way, us being here. We’re not going to waver at all. We understand the outside noise is going to happen, but we understand what we believe in.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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