Allen Park — For all the talk about the Detroit Lions catching breaks because the Kansas City Chiefs couldn’t hang on to the ball in the teams’ season opener, the Lions also left plenty of meat on the bone, particularly on defense.
Sure, rookie Brian Branch’s pick-six was one of the game’s most important plays, but the Lions had opportunities to intercept at least three other passes off the arm of quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The reigning MVP twice missed his target long, with one bouncing off the fingertips of Branch, while the other was never located by safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who had his eyes locked on to the target, anticipating having to dislodge the ball.
The most glaring missed opportunity came in the closing minutes of the contest and also belonged to Gardner-Johnson, who had what appeared to be a sure interception bounce off his hands late in the fourth quarter, temporarily keeping the Chiefs’ comeback hopes afloat.
Of course, those blown turnovers are a far easier pill to swallow after a win. And even though Detroit’s defenders didn’t finish those plays, it should be considered encouraging they were in position to make them. That said, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said the group will be putting some extra time into ball drills this week, as a point of emphasis.
Gardner-Johnson, who shared the NFL lead with six interceptions a year ago, said part of the reason he didn’t make the plays is he was still calibrating in his first game action with his new team, after not seeing the field during the preseason.
“It’s coming faster and once you realize that, your body gets into it and you start flowing,” Gardner-Johnson said. “That’s a learning curve for me. It’s all part of the process. Everybody wants to be 1% better, and everyone is looking at that picture, that video of me dropping the pick. Yeah, we could have ended the game, but that’s part of the process. Everything isn’t going to be perfect. The end goal, which is the Super Bowl, it will be much better when I catch that pick in the Super Bowl.”
Gardner-Johnson said the most important thing early in the season is making sure he and his teammates in the secondary are being consistent with their fundamentals, primarily alignment and assignment. The Lions had some glaring breakdowns against the Chiefs, including during both of the opposition’s touchdowns. On the first score, Gardner-Johnson was involved in the coverage confusion, visibly taking the blame after receiver Rashee Rice came open in the back of the end zone.
Accountability, he notes, is key to improvement.
“As a defense, you never want to show signs of finger-pointing,” Gardner-Johnson said. “We take ownership in this defense. If it’s your fault, you own up to it. We’re not worried about who might be laughing; we’re just worried about, ‘Can we fix it the next play?'”
For the most part, the Lions did fix their issues in the second half, holding the Chiefs to six points and preventing them from converting on any of their seven third-down tries. Still, the back seven came out of the contest with plenty of wrinkles to iron out, which is why the defensive backs and linebackers have continued coming in more than an hour before the rest of the team each morning to conduct player-led film sessions.
Gardner-Johnson called the needed corrections simple, and as long as the team continues to be consistent with its fundamentals, he’s confident the interception opportunities will continue to be there. And he certainly doesn’t expect to let the next one slip through his hands.
“If we stick to what we’re supposed to do, everything should take care of itself,” he said. “I might catch two of them this week, if that (ball) hits my hands again.”