The Detroit Lions finished the first half of the season on a sour note, with a 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that was far and away their worst performance of the year.
Before they left for their bye week break, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn told his players to forget about that game, to bury it — literally — and never speak of it again.
Glenn gathered his entire defense out behind the Lions’ Allen Park practice facility one day last week and buried a tape of the game in a pre-dug hole in the ground.
“I really wasn’t looking at it as a motivation factor,” Glenn said Thursday. “I really wasn’t looking at it as a symbol of what other coaches did. I looked at it, myself personally, that, man, these first eight games are over with. All the mistakes, all the arguments, all the issues, they’re gone. They’re done. So now, it’s time to move on to this last part of the season.”
Packers tight end Robert Tonyan catches a pass against Lions safety Tracy Walker III, left, and linebacker Alex Anzalone to score a touchdown in the third quarter of the Lions’ 35-17 loss on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
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Glenn isn’t the first coach to make a ceremonial gesture out of moving on from loss.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick buried a tape of his team’s 2008 loss to the Miami Dolphins, when the Patriots couldn’t stop the Dolphins’ wildcat offense, and former Lions coach Matt Patricia followed in his mentor’s footsteps when he buried a football after his first game as Lions coach, a 48-17 loss to the New York Jets.
Those stunts were met with mixed reviews by players. Former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel insisted in 2019 that he appreciated Belichick’s gesture, while Lions players from the 2018 team — a team Cassel was on — mocked Patricia’s ceremony in casual conversations with the Free Press after that season.
Glenn said Lions players appeared to take his message to heart.
“I think they really liked it,” he said. “Because afterwards, I think every defensive player when we did bury it, they jumped on it. And they stepped on it, they stomped on it. What was funny, our video assistant, Shelby (Hawk), she was last and she jumped on it twice.”
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn watches a play against the Ravens during the first half of the Lions’ 19-17 loss at Ford Field on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021.
The Lions, 0-8 and the only winless team in the NFL, enter this week’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked 30th in total defense, 31st in points allowed and last in red zone percentage.
They have allowed eight plays of 40-plus yards this season — only the Kansas City Chiefs (in one more game) and Baltimore Ravens have allowed more, though Glenn said his deep bye-week dive into his defense’s performance shined new light on the issues at hand.
Though the Lions allow more passing yards per play than any team in the NFL, most of the touchdowns they’ve given up have come near the goal line.
The Lions defense has surrendered touchdowns on 20 of its opponents’ 24 trips to the red zone, an NFL-worst 83.3%. In all, 14 of the 25 touchdowns the Lions defense has allowed have come from the 5-yard line or closer, with another four coming in the low red zone area (between the 6- and 12-yard line).
“Sometimes I can yell and scream and think there’s something that’s not our issue,” Glenn said. “Our issue is, ‘How do we stop this and get better at this right now?’ And then look at tapes and (see what) are they doing, and I think we’ve done a really good job this bye week of identifying that.
“We as coaches got to make sure we have something ready for them so they can be successful. So those are the things that jumped out to me during this bye week.”
The Lions’ defensive issues in the red zone have been more about alignment and technique than toughness, Glenn said.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) runs down the sidelines after a catch against the Detroit Lions during the first quarter at Heinz Field on August 21, 2021.
Some of those problems are due to youth, with players getting fooled by motions. Most are fixable.
“We got to stop giving up touchdowns,” linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “When they’re down there low, we got to make them kick a field goal, and when they’re high in the red, we got to try to get a turnover. Find ways just to get the ball back without giving up six points or seven points. That’s kind of just more so our mindset.”
The Lions allowed 236 yards rushing in their Week 8 loss to the Eagles and gave up four touchdown runs of fewer than 5 yards.
Linebacker Alex Anzalone said the Lions were sloppy fundamentally and played with little energy against the Eagles. Fixing both those areas has been an emphasis this week as the Lions prepare to face a Steelers team that relies heavily on physical running back Najee Harris.
“All those little things that make a good run defense a good run defense, those are the things we focused on,” Anzalone said. “Just building on those things throughout the week to get ready for Sunday.”
Contact Dave Birkett at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions’ defensive problems start in the red zone