'Keep chipping away': Lions DC Aaron Glenn sees positives, despite ugly numbers
Allen Park — It's Aaron Glenn's nature to focus on the positive.
The Detroit Lions' first-year defensive coordinator isn't oblivious to the task at hand. He inherited the worst-performing unit in franchise history, and as with any rebuild, the team purged several, high-priced veterans before Glenn even stepped on the field to begin installing his scheme.
As you might imagine, the turnaround has been akin to a cruise ship, not a speedboat. Through four games, the Lions are allowing opponents to rack up nearly 400 yards and 30 points per game.
But each time Glenn steps to the podium for his weekly media session, he opens with something positive his group is doing well. This week, like the first, Glenn praised his group's ability to consistently get stops on third down. They're currently second in the NFL, allowing opponents to covert just 27.8% of their opportunities.
"If you told me that we would be that at this point, there’s no way in the world I would have thought we would be 0-4 right now, seriously," Glenn said.
He's right, in a way. Third-down success rate is often predictive of overall defensive success.
But the Lions have negated that effectiveness with some of their flaws, none more significant than their inability to prevent the big play.
On average, Detroit is allowing nearly six gains of 20-plus yards per game. Those chunk plays, most of which have come through the air, are the biggest thing anchoring Glenn's group from experiencing a more notable turnaround.
"Each week I continue to talk about, just keep chipping away, keep chipping away," Glenn said. "That’s the one area that we’ve got to look at, and as coaches, too, how do we get these guys in situations to where they’re not giving up these big plays? I was always told by Bill Parcells, ‘How many times do we’ve got to get hit in the face with a skunk before you smell it?'"
Against the Ravens two weeks ago, it was a steady stream of communication errors that doomed the Lions. At some level, given the new scheme and reliance on young, inexperienced players, those are to be expected.
But after emphasizing communication heading into last Sunday's game against Chicago, those issues significantly decreased. In that game, a 24-14 loss, execution errors were more prevalent, which could also largely be attributed to that same youth and inexperience.
That was particularly the case with cornerback Bobby Price, whose 125 defensive snaps this season are not only the first playing time of his career, but his first at a position he switched to in the latter stages of the offseason program.
Glenn's optimistic outlook shows up here, too. Instead of blasting a player for shortcomings, the coach, a former player who enjoyed a 15-year NFL career before retiring in 2008, is quick to highlight what Price does well, his mentality and his potential.
"Every corner, man, once you get beat, every corner has in the back of their mind, 'God, I don't want to get beat again,'" Glenn said. "The thing about Bobby, he keeps coming back. He keeps coming back. He came in as a safety, so he's still a baby as far as learning to play corner.
"... You take somebody like Bobby that's never done it and you see the success he's had already, right, the plays he's made," Glenn said. "I'm sticking with that guy. He's a guy that's never played the position, that has the confidence and is going to go out there and play with it, understanding some things can happen that are bad, but I don't care, I'm going to go out there and continue to challenge. Give me that guy. Give me that guy all day, every day."
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Glenn, 49, is builder. He's trying to instill a foundation in the individual parts of the whole, which in turn he hopes becomes the foundation of entire defense.
Of course, there are other issues Glenn is looking to clear up beyond the big plays. He also hasn't been happy with the team's tackling, especially on the edges against the run. And he is annoyed with how many yards opponents are getting after contact, when they fall forward for an extra two or three at the end of a run or reception. Glenn calls that leaky yardage.
But he's less concerned about those struggles, at least compared to the team's issues with big plays.
"We'll fix that," Glenn said. "That's one where I'm not worried because we have tough, aggressive guys. Just being able to see that on tape, and those guys understanding exactly the things we can do, we'll fix that. It's the explosive plays that we've gotta spend more time with as a coach and as a player, executing and making sure we're putting them in position to stop that stuff."
They get no breaks this week. The Minnesota Vikings possess one of the league's best running backs and receiving tandems in football with Dalvin Cook in the backfield and Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson on the outside, each capable of posting 1,000-yard seasons.
And even though Minnesota was stymied a week ago by the Browns, they've amassed 17 gains of 20 or more yards this season and have scored 27 or more points in their three other contests.
For the Lions, it will be another opportunity to chip away, to correct fatal flaws in pursuit of their first victory of the season. But regardless of what happens on Sunday, Glenn will inevitably find a positive or two, something to build on, as his young defense grows together.
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