Film review: C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s debut for the Lions

USA Today

One of the most surprising moves this off-season was during free agency when the Detroit Lions signed defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Coming out of left field, the Lions signed Gardner-Johnson to a one year contract that allows him to prove himself for a long-term deal in Detroit or another team.

Whatever happens will happen. For now, the Lions are going to reap the benefits of having such a talented defensive player in their secondary. Through one game, the Lions are already seeing those benefits.


Last Thursday against the Kansas City Chiefs, Gardner-Johnson finished with five tackles and two pass deflections. This was good enough to earn him a 70.0 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF). Let’s jump into the tape and look at some of the best plays from Gardner-Johnson in the Lions win over the Chiefs in week one.

Late in the 4th quarter, the Chiefs were down 21-20 and needed to sustain a drive to put themselves in position to win the game. However, Gardner-Johnson had other plans for the Chiefs on this 3rd and long with the play listed above.

For Detroit, they send a 6-man pressure to the quarterback while playing man coverage with a single-high safety in this Cover 1 defense. This defense was called to defend the Chiefs, who were aligned in a trips left formation. To the single receiver side is Gardner-Johnson (Lions DB 2).

As you can see him highlighted before the snap, he reads the backfield and watches the eyes of Patrick Mahomes. As Mahomes glances to his right, Gardner-Johnson knows that a deep pass is coming. He leaves the tight end that he’s faced man-to-man with and he starts to retreat to help underneath on that deep pass.

While the ball is in the air, you can see Gardner-Johnson try to high-point the football. Whether he was a step too late or an inch too short, he’s not able to secure it as an interception and instead it’s just one of his pass deflections of the game. Regardless, it’s a heck of a play by him and it forces the Chiefs into a 4th down situation with the game on the line.

The play above is by far one of my favorite plays from week one of any Lions defender. The Chiefs come out of shotgun and run a spacing concept. Sky Moore (Chiefs WR 24) is listed as the Z-receiver and Blake Bell (Chiefs TE 83) is listed as the Y. Both players run snag routes towards the middle of the field.

For Detroit, they only rush four defenders while dropping 7 defenders back to stop the pass. For Gardner-Johnson, he’s aligned in the middle of the field and becomes a buzz defender as he attacks downhill towards those snag routes.

In the process, he knows that Mahomes is targeting Moore and he makes a great play on the football. He does so by getting over the top of the receiver and then plays through the hands of the receiver to swat this ball away. It’s a tough play to make but fortunately for the Lions, Gardner-Johnson is able to make it.

By far, one of the best assets to Gardner-Johnson’s game after the first game is how strong he is as a run defender. Whether he’s flying up into the alley or playing lateral and meeting ball carriers to the sidelines, he showed he can mix it up anywhere he’s aligned.

Take the play above as an example. The Lions are aligned with a two safety look on defense. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are in 11 personnel (one tight end and one running back) with a condensed set to the left side of the formation with their receivers. Prior to the snap, the Chiefs put Sky Moore (Chiefs WR 24) on a jet-motion towards the condensed set.

Once the ball is snapped, Mahomes gives the ball to Moore and the hope is that he can get outside and get up field for a big gain. However, Gardner-Johnson fakes out the pulling left tackle (Donovan Smith LT 79) with an outside-in move and this puts him in perfect position to meet Moore for the tackle. This play was textbook from Gardner-Johnson and could be something we see on a weekly basis from him.

The last play I want to showcase is the Chiefs coming out in 11 personnel (one tight end and one running back) and running a counter variation out of a pin and pull scheme.

On this play, the Chiefs are going to pull their center and backside tackle (right tackle). In the process, the Chiefs Isaiah Pacheco (RB 10) opens right before turning back left to the quarterback to get the hand-off.

While the center trips up and tries to set the edge, Gardner-Johnson plays square to the line-of-scrimmage (LOS) and forces the running back to bounce to the outside. Side note: hats off to Alex Anzalone (Lions LB 34) for playing square and meeting the center on the edge.

As the running back tries to extend towards the sideline, he’s met by Gardner-Johnson. It’s great tackle by Gardner-Johnson and it’s one of those plays that can make life very tough for the opposition when trying to establish a perimeter rushing attack.

My final thoughts are very simple with Gardner-Johnson. He had a strong debut and he was one of the most consistent players on the field for the Lions defense. He sets the tone with his energy and physicality. If it hasn’t already, it will resonate and carry over to the rest of the locker room. I’d look for Gardner-Johnson to play closer to the box in the Lions week two match-up against the Seattle Seahawks. Lastly, I’d expect him to make plays like the one he made above.

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