There is a disturbing commonality with the Detroit Lions in their most recent losses. It’s one that has dogged defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn for his entire era in charge of the Detroit defense.
Quarterbacks who can run give Glenn his Lions defense fits.
There’s a difference between a running quarterback and a quarterback who can run. Running quarterbacks tend to not be much of a problem because they want to run, or need to run to be effective. Think Daniel Jones of the Giants, Desmond Ridder in Atlanta or Justin Fields of the Bears. Detroit has handled that type of pretty well.
On Sunday, the Lions ran into the latter kind in Lamar Jackson — a great passer who also happens to be able to kill you with his legs, too. And that’s exactly what Jackson did, destroying the Lions with his passing ability and also his running prowess.
It was a similar outcome to how Jalen Hurts, Geno Smith (twice) and Josh Allen have lit up the Lions defense. They’re all accomplished passing QBs who also happen to be good runners. In those matchups, Detroit’s defense tends to get away from what has otherwise made them pretty successful, especially in 2023.
It feels like the Lions are indecisive and uneasy with their defensive assignments when playing the mobile passers. The linebackers are a half-count later to the ball in coverage; the EDGEs don’t rush the QB as aggressively, and the safeties are often trapped in between playing the run and pass. That was certainly true in the ugly loss in Baltimore.
The Lions don’t wear indecision well. They don’t play read-and-react all that well. When they’re not facing the passers who can run, they don’t show those traits or schematic style. Glenn’s defense attacks, often creatively and with excellent coordination between levels. The line knifes into gaps better. The LBs fill with confidence and speed to the point of attack. The corners play tighter to the line and aren’t peeking over their shoulders when running out in man coverage.
Here’s the radical thought: don’t worry about the quarterback run. Play defense the way that works well instead of changing things up schematically just because the QB might take off. Trust in Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill and John Cominsky to make some plays before Hurts or Jackson gashes them for a 9-yard run on 3rd-and-10. Empower Derrick Barnes, Jack Campbell, Brian Branch, Tracy Walker and Alex Anzalone — the primary components of the run defense — to step up, too.
Will that surrender some big plays? Absolutely. But what’s more damaging, an 11-yard run by the quarterback or a 37-yard pass that exploits the defense waiting to stop the 11-yard QB run? Because that’s exactly what’s happening in these games.
I’d rather see the Lions play their brand of defense that works pretty well when not facing the likes of Jackson or Patrick Mahomes than get away from what works to try and limit what those MVP candidates might do. Interestingly, Glenn’s defense largely did this in the Week 1 win over Mahomes and the Chiefs. With some assistance from Chiefs WRs (literally) dropping the ball and no Travis Kelce, it worked pretty well.
A week later, indecision clouded the vision against Seattle. Smith, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett lit up the less aggressive, less coordinated Lions defense. Forcing the defensive backs to worry about maybe having to come up and stop the QB run renders them much worse in coverage, that’s been proven time and again to Glenn’s troops. So, just maybe, don’t worry about it and play your normal game.
I don’t know if it will work. I also know that what Glenn and the Lions keep doing in those matchups isn’t working. It isn’t showing even marginal improvement. At worst, the changeup from tendencies might buy the defense a couple of early stops and give the Detroit offense a chance to get some momentum. If Jackson or Allen or Smith or Justin Herbert still beats the Lions, and they very well might, tip your cap to greatness and at least know you made them earn it.
Just an idea from someone tired of the insanity of asking an otherwise good defense to abandon why it’s successful just because the quarterback can both run and throw.