They were drowning, with five straight losses and a secondary so bad they cost their position coach his job. Cornerback Jerry Jacobs said morale had dipped to the point “we felt like we were losing each other.”
On Thursday, a few Detroit Lions veterans got together and called a player’s-only meeting on defense. The idea, safety DeShon Elliott said, was to have enough uncomfortable conversations to bring trust back to the unit.
At least for a week, it worked.
The Lions turned in their best defensive performance of the season Sunday, intercepting three Aaron Rodgers passes and coming up with a big red zone stop in the final minute to win their first game since mid-September, 15-9, over the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field.
“There’s a sense of urgency that we got to get ourselves together,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “Dudes are losing their jobs over what’s being put out on our film and guys stepped up this week and we just got to continue doing that going forward. The biggest difference to me is guys were competing. And granted, that’s kind of a little bit of who we’re playing and things like that, but you saw guys out there actually competing.”
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The Packers reached Lions territory on eight of their nine possessions Sunday, failing to cross the 50-yard line only when they took a knee to end the first half.
But Rodgers threw red-zone interceptions on Green Bay’s first two drives, the Lions got a fourth-down stop late in the second quarter to set up their first touchdown, and the Packers sputtered offensively in the final minute after a failed fourth-down conversion by the Lions left them in the game.
Rodgers, the reigning two-time NFL MVP, drove to the Packers (3-6) to the Lions’ 17-yard line with 55 seconds to play only to throw four straight incompletions against a Lions defense that ranks last in the NFL in points and yards allowed.
Rodgers threw back-to-back passes out of bounds in Allen Lazard’s direction on first and second down, and safety C.J. Moore, playing in place of injured rookie Kerby Joseph, broke up a third-down pass to Amari Rodgers near the goal line.
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On fourth down, under pressure from Charles Harris, Rodgers heaved a pass off his back foot to Sammy Watkins that landed harmlessly in the back of the end zone and sent Jacobs running down the field in celebration.
“This week it was a little tough, but like I told you, we came together as a whole defense,” Jacobs said. “We met without the coaches and we just, we discussed what we need to do to be better as a defense to be tighter, and that really helped out. We did that Thursday and it translated to the field. We really did it for the coaches and everybody though because we became tight.”
Lions coach Dan Campbell said he gave a game ball to embattled defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn after the game.
Campbell fired Glenn’s good friend and hand-picked choice for secondary coach, Aubrey Pleasant, on Monday, and the Lions traded tight end T.J. Hockenson, their leading receiver, to their division rival Minnesota Vikings on Tuesday.
LIONS GRADES:Defense gets high marks all around in win over Packers
Glenn, a former Pro Bowl cornerback, took a more hands-on approach with the secondary this week, and the unit responded with its best effort of the year. Rodgers completed just 23 of 43 passes for 291 yards and had a season-low 53.9 passer rating.
“I’m excited because we won, man. And I just, I feel like it was great to see,” Campbell said. “Our defense has taken some heat and to see them step up, against a worthy opponent and a good quarterback, it’s good. It’s real good. And I’m proud of those guys because it’s easy to just get frustrated and go in the tank, but they came back. And they believed in themselves, they believed in the coaches were going to get them prepared and give them the best game plan to have success, and so they just came back to work like they have every week.”
The Lions got standout performances from Joseph, who had two interceptions before leaving with a brain injury, and their defensive line to overcome a shaky performance by Jared Goff and the offense.
Joseph has four takeaways since replacing Tracy Walker in the starting lineup. He intercepted a Rodgers pass that deflected off linebacker Derrick Barnes’ helmet on Green Bay’s opening possession, and made a nice play on an underthrown Rodgers pass to Robert Tonyan in the third quarter.
Aidan Hutchinson also picked off an underthrown Rodgers pass on a tackle-eligible play to offensive lineman David Bakhtiari, and the Lions held Packers running backs AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones to 59 yards rushing on 20 carries.
“We needed that,” Anzalone said. “Not every one’s a must win, but losing five straight’s tough and we needed that and hopefully it just continues going forward.”
Goff finished 14 of 26 passing for 137 yards with one interception and touchdown passes to two of Hockenson’s replacements at tight end, Shane Zylstra and James Mitchell.
Zylstra opened the scoring on a 1-yard catch with 15 seconds left in the first half, and Jamaal Williams ran in a two-point conversion after the Packers were called for running into the kicker on Michael Badgley’s missed extra point to give the Lions an 8-0 halftime lead.
Mitchell scored on a 3-yard pass on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Williams had 81 yards rushing for the Lions, who play road games the next two weeks against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants before returning home to face the Buffalo Bills in their annual Thanksgiving game.
“It feels good,” Campbell said. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m exhausted. Like I want to go home, put the feet up, drink a beer, so it feels real good. I’m just proud of them. I really am. I’m proud of our coaches. I’m proud of the players. I’m proud of everybody because everybody puts a lot of work into it. I know it’s only two, but my gosh, man. And there again, to see, end of the game, man, one stop, our defense comes through. I just think we need that, we needed that.”
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.