If Detroit Lions do make the leap, Aaron Glenn knows his defense must set the tempo

Detroit Free Press

Football, baseball, basketball, hockey. It doesn’t matter. If it’s on TV, Aaron Glenn is watching.

Glenn, the Detroit Lions’ third-year defensive coordinator and noted sports junkie, was at his Birmingham home this spring, winding down from a long day of practice, when he flipped on Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The Vegas Golden Knights beat the Florida Panthers, 9-3, to win their first championship, and as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman feted the team for its accomplishment, he summoned Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone to his end of the ice.

“Our tradition for this 130-year-old trophy is to present it to the captain,” Bettman said, shaking hands with Stone and then helping him lift the trophy off its pedestal.

Stone raised the cup above his head with two arms, kissed it as he skated to center ice, showing it off to fans still filling the arena, then handed it to a teammate.

One by one, players took turns celebrating with the cup before coaches, owners and others in the organization got their turn.

“I thought this was fascinating,” Glenn told the Free Press at the end of the Lions’ formal offseason program in mid-June. “Who was the first person to touch the trophy? The captain. Who touched the trophy after that? The players. And (then the) GM, the coach. It’s a player’s game. And just, man, trust your players. Make a call, let them go play.”

LIONS CAMP BEGINS: Starting CB, OLB among 5 position battles to watch

Glenn, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback who played 15 NFL seasons with five teams, has long ascribed to that philosophy, even if it has not always been easy to follow.

In 2021, his first season as defensive coordinator, Glenn came in guns blazing as one of the most aggressive-minded play callers in the league, then quickly learned the Lions’ personnel didn’t match everything he wanted to do on the defensive side of the ball.

His best cornerback tore his Achilles tendon in the season opener. His top rookie battled a back injury all year. Most of the holdover veterans he inherited were hurt or ineffective. Tackling suffered as players struggled with the mental side of the game. And the offense was unable to play complimentary football most of the year.

Glenn compensated by trying to be perfect with his play calls, and the Lions finished at or near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. They gave up the second-most points in the NFL, the fourth-most yards, finished last in passing yards allowed per play and 31st in red zone defense.

“It’s a player’s game and our job as coaches, man, I’ve said this before, it’s how do we put them in the best position to go make plays?” Glenn said. “And if we give them direction, let them go play. Don’t try to fill their heads up with too much stuff. Allow them to play fast, allow them to play physical and violent and let them go get the ball.”

Admittedly, Glenn didn’t do that well enough his first season — or in the first half of last year.

But last fall, after tinkering with personnel and scheme and his own approach after another demoralizing start, Glenn’s defense blossomed over the final 10 weeks of the season. Now, entering their first practice of the 2023 training camp Sunday, there is reason to believe the Lions are poised to end their 30-year drought without a playoff victory.

“I think last year kind of proved that No. 1, the culture was there from the first year that we started to build, the culture is getting to where we want it. Damn near there,” Glenn said. “And I think maybe by Week 6 or 7, the identity of who we are — and just defensively speaking — started to really, really show up. And I think that’s one of the keys of us winning and being in the position that we were in. I don’t know what our stats were if you just take those games. I really don’t go off that, because at the end of the year it wasn’t where we wanted to be. But I know that I thought we were a pretty damn good defense.”

Fear factor

The Lions finished last in the NFL in total defense last season and tied for the third-most points allowed. They ranked near the bottom of the league in third down and red zone defense and had a major meltdown late in the year, allowing 320 yards rushing to the lowly Carolina Panthers in a loss that helped cost them a playoff spot.

POSITION BATTLES TO WATCH: Way-too-early Detroit Lions’ 53-man roster prediction

But they piled up sacks and interceptions while holding opponents to just 20.2 points over the final 10 games — 11th fewest in the league — and they did that while playing five rookies key minutes on the defensive side of the ball.

By the time the regular season finale at Lambeau Field rolled around, with a playoff spot on the line for the Green Bay Packers, Glenn’s defense looked like the unit he envisioned all along: A violent, aggressive, playmaking group that swarmed to the ball.

“We know what the NFL is trying to do with all defense,” Glenn said. “Everything you can imagine favors the offense. Everything. And the only advantage that we have is fear. That’s the only advantage that we have. And I’m an old-school coach, I know that, and I like playing old-school football and I like beating people up, I like hitting people. And that’s what our defense tried to do for the most part.”

One play from the Lions’ Week 18 win over the Packers embodies Glenn’s defense, who it’s made of and what it’s about.

Trailing 9-3 with the Packers in field goal range late in the first half, John Cominsky, an unsung defensive lineman claimed off waivers from the Atlanta Falcons last spring, broke free from a block to punch a fumble out of Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones’ hands.

TIME FOR A NEW KICKER: Detroit Lions cut last season’s kicker Michael Badgley, leaving 2 to battle at camp

The ball squirted 10 yards downfield, and as Packers tight end Robert Tonyan dove to recover it near the sideline, second-year Lions defensive lineman Alim McNeill jumped on Tonyan blocking his path to the ball.

Will Harris, who moved from safety to slot cornerback in 2021 and lost his starting job for a time last year, fell on the ball at the 15-yard line and the Lions scored 10 plays later to capture momentum heading into halftime.

“You see a 330-pound man running down the field, just totally smashes a tight end so he can’t get the ball and we recover the ball,” Glenn said. “I mean, that was a true definition of who we were. The first thing that we were about is we play with maximum effort. The second thing is when you start to look at the takeaways that we started getting, like what we really started focusing on man, we are going after the ball no matter what, either as punchouts, that’s INTs, whatever it is. Man, we want the ball back cause if we give it back to our offense we know our offense is going to score or put points on the board.

“And the last thing, which is probably one of the most important things is, man, we’re going to be a physical, aggressive and violent defense.”

While McNeill represents the youth on the Lions’ defense — a third-round pick in 2021, he is expected to play a key role this fall, along with second-year players Aidan Hutchinson, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Houston and Malcolm Rodriguez, plus rookie first-round pick Jack Campbell — as well as Cominsky and Harris, who are two chip-on-the-shoulder players who give the unit grit. The Lions did invest heavily in free agency on defensive personnel this offseason for the first time since Glenn was one of Dan Campbell’s first hires as head coach.

After deciding not to pick up cornerback Jeff Okudah’s fifth-year option, and subsequently trading him to the Atlanta Falcons, and with no intent to re-sign Amani Oruwariye or Deshon Elliott, the Lions spent freely on cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley and added safety/slot corner C.J. Gardner-Johnson this offseason.

All three are expected to start in the secondary this fall and have upgraded the Lions’ overall defensive talent to a level that Glenn said is “better” than pretty good.

“I’m looking forward to seeing these guys work,” Glenn said.

‘Get over that hump’

Better talent means bigger expectations for the Lions’ defense this fall, and that means more pressure — and more opportunity — for Glenn.

At 51 years old, Glenn is widely considered to be on the head coach track. He’s a strong communicator and respected leader who had an impressive playing career. He worked his way up as an assistant coach, after learning the scouting ropes in the front office. And he counts Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, plus the Lions’ Campbell, among his mentors and friends.

Glenn had a strong interview with his old team, the New York Jets, in 2021, but was considered too inexperienced for the job. He was runner-up for the New Orleans Saints job in 2022 that went to Dennis Allen, when he also interviewed with the Denver Broncos. And he got two more interviews in January, when he was a finalist for the Indianapolis Colts job.

Glenn has not hidden his desire to be an NFL head coach, and he knows that hiring a defensive coordinator from one of the league’s worst defenses would be a tough sell for a franchise, no matter how many other boxes he checks.

A good season by the Lions this year, and particularly their defense, would vault him to near the top of the head coach pecking order. A bad one could leave him permanently on the outside looking in, like former Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, once one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the league.

“Listen, I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t want to be a head coach,” Glenn said. “I do. I understand the patience that it takes to wait your turn until that happens. And even when it does happen, listen, I know there’s going to be a learning curve in that aspect, but I would say the thing these last three years, I learned so much about being in that position and understanding what that position takes to be successful. And even in the interview process, it’s been outstanding to be a part of it. And I know one thing I’ve learned more than anything that, in these interviews, man, I’m going to be myself. And I’m not trying to win the interview, I’m just trying to be myself. Either you like it or you don’t and that’s just what it is.”

In his two seasons with the Lions, Glenn has learned both to better trust his players so he can call a better game, and how to be a better coach when it comes to helping Campbell with situational football.

This summer he said he planned to visit with Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to sharpen his fire zone blitz scheme — the Lions blitzed on 35% of their defensive snaps last season, much higher than the NFL average of 27% — and his old coach with the Jets, Al Groh. Already, he’s started having more fun on the job.

“I think my first year, I didn’t have as much fun as I’m having now cause I think I put a lot of pressure on myself my first year,” Glenn said. “Now, I’m going into my third year, because I got it, I see it, I understand. I can sit there and watch tape and understand exactly what they’re (trying) to do and try to study how he’s trying to operate to make me call a game and when I hit it just like right where we want to hit it, and I think that has a lot to do with how we operated last year.

“Going into those last couple of games, we started to change what we were doing as far as the defensive philosophy and players and things like that, and the game started getting really, really fun to call. I’m like, ‘Yeah I know exactly what this guy was going to do,’ and that just comes with the growth of just doing it.”

As a team, the Lions expect growth this year, too.

They should enter the season as the favorites to win the NFC North, and with young players like Hutchinson and McNeill poised for big years, the payoff could be huge after two seasons of hardship — for Glenn and the team.

“That’s the funny thing about sports in general, is because everybody thinks it’s a quick-fix deal,” Glenn said, spreading his arms on the table in front of him. “Before you can get here, you have to travel all the way through here. And I think we were in the process of doing that. I think my first year, we took some lumps. Going into our second year, we still took some lumps then you start to see us improve. Going into our third year, now you see the influx of defensive personnel so I’m expecting us to improve even more. So now we’re at that part to where it’s time to get over that hump and get to the next level.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

Articles You May Like

8 free agents that can fill the Lions open roster spot ahead of training camp
Former Detroit Lions wide receiver signs with Houston Texans
Ranking every 2024 Detroit Lions player: 80-71
Detroit Lions News: Lions Super Bowl Odds Are GREAT, Aidan Hutchinson Defensive Player Of The Year?
Lions camp preview: EDGE has many questions but also potential answers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *