Allen Park — A year after fielding the worst defense in franchise history, and seeing those struggles continue through the first half of the 2021 season, the Detroit Lions were in desperate need for an identity on that side of the ball.
Whether intentionally borrowed or absorbed through subconscious osmosis, they found one in Pittsburgh coming out of the bye.
Following the team’s exit meetings last week, cornerback Amani Oruwariye sat down with the media before leaving the team’s facility for the last time prior to the start of the offseason. During that interview session he brought with him a stylized padlock, painted in the Steelers’ color scheme. Given to each member of the defense, the solid black lock had yellow lettering that read, “Lock the Gates.”
“It’s just a mentality,” Oruwariye said. “More physical, more fast, just more. We need more. So this is just something to keep with us while we’re watching the playoffs and our blood is boiling watching other teams get to keep playing and not us. Just something to keep with us.”
It could be entirely coincidental the Lions adopted the phrase following their best defensive performance of the season — a 16-16 tie on the road against a franchise that has been defined by its toughness and physicality for decades — but another team that plays their home games at Heinz Field, the University of Pittsburgh, has been using the mantra for years.
Coach Pat Narduzzi, who oversaw the “No Fly Zone” as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator several years back, brought the lock-the-gates mindset with him when he took over as the coach of the Panthers.
“I believe ‘Lock The Gates’ means when you step on that field and there’s an opponent standing out there, you want to lock the gates behind you. You want to fight that opponent until there’s only one standing,” Pitt tight end Tyler Sear said in 2018.
And its usage in Pittsburgh goes back even further, to when longtime Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs used the phrase during a 2012 interview to describe playing on the road against the rival Steelers.
“When we go down to Heinz Field and you see the towels, and you see the colors, you know you’re in a fight,” Suggs said. “As soon as we walk in their stadium, they’re going to lock the gates. But that’s what we want. We definitely want them to lock the gates behind us so we can get in there and we can have it out.”
The Lions remain a far cry from those great Steelers and Ravens units, and aren’t really on the same relative level as the University of Pittsburgh, but there’s little doubt the team made marked defensive improvements starting with that Pittsburgh game.
Through the first eight weeks of the 2021 campaign, first-year defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn spent his time plugging leak after leak, while trying to remain upbeat. But before the players left for the bye week, the group symbolically buried the film from those early-season contests, with several stomping on the dirt after the deed was done.
At that stage in the season, the Lions were allowing more than 30 points per game and had been historically brutal in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on 20 of 24 trips inside the 20-yard line. Glenn needed his players to forget those struggles and come back from their brief break anew.
And to a large extent they did. Starting with the Pittsburgh game, the Lions made critical improvements in three areas. First and foremost, they got much better in the red zone, trimming opponents’ success rate by 22%. Secondly, the Lions forced more turnovers, increasing their per game production by more than 50%.
And, as you might imagine, those two things directly impacted the most important stat, points. Across the final nine games, the Lions cut scoring by nearly six points per game, down to a respectable 24.8 average.
And that includes the ugly bump in the turnaround, when the Lions surrendered 50 points for just the seventh time in franchise history during the Super Bowl era in a 51-29 loss on the road to the Seattle Seahawks.
That did little to quell the optimism generated the final nine games.
“The sky’s the limit,” Oruwariye said. “Just had our last exit meeting with the defense and that’s all we really talked about, just building on the foundation. We definitely had a culture shift, I would say, at least defensively, after the bye week. That’s what this (the lock) is about: Lock the Gates. It was the Pittsburgh game. That was the one where we felt like the mentality switched.”