When you look at the Detroit Lions' defensive performance against the San Francisco 49ers, there’s not a lot to like on the surface. They gave up 41 points (though seven of those came on a Jared Goff pick-six), 12.3 yards per pass attempt, 4.7 yards per carry, and didn’t force a punt until the final seconds of the third quarter.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn knows it wasn’t a good performance overall, but he pointed to one area in which he believes the team can build upon: the team’s third-down defense.
On the stat sheet, the Lions' defense was successful on six of nine third downs, but Glenn thinks they were close to being perfect on Sunday. One of those 49ers' conversions includes the pivotal fumble at the end of the game. Jimmy Garoppolo completed a pass to Deebo Samuel, who got what would have been the game-sealing first down, but Trey Flowers stripped him from behind.
“Golly, that was a beautiful play and it gave us a chance,” Glenn said. “Listen, as bad as it gets, man, our guys kept fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting and we started getting stop after stop, after stop. Then, boom, there’s the turnover to give our guys a chance.”
On the score sheet, that goes down as a conversion for the 49ers offense, but Glenn understandably sees that as a win for his defense. Up to seven-of-nine on third downs. As for the other two, Glenn pointed to the pressure created by the defensive front as a positive sign, but he needs the secondary to step up and make plays.
The first was the infamous play in which Jeff Okudah gave up a 79-yard touchdown. Glenn thinks the team did just about everything right, other than make a play on the ball.
“It was a third-and-10, we crushed the quarterback, we crushed him, and he throws up a duck,” Glenn said. “Jeff’s gotta make that play, and he does and he usually makes those plays, and I look forward to him coming back and making those plays for us.”
On the other play, it was the same story. The Lions got pressure on a third-and-6, but Okudah was a step behind his receiver, and Garoppolo found Mohamed Sanu for 7 yards.
“Romeo was right at the quarterback, unblocked, great pressure, quarterback gets it out, and then we’re not in the right place in coverage,” Glenn said.
Of course, part of the issue with the Lions' defense last week was their inability to get into third downs. In all of the first half, Detroit’s defense forced the 49ers' offense into just two third downs.
But Glenn believes if the coaching staff can build the defense’s confidence through their third-down performance, the rest of the game will eventually come.
“So you’ve got to tell the players, ‘Listen, this is us. This is us,’” Glenn said. “You can go from third down, then go to the red zone, try to clean that stuff up. On first and second down, start to clean that stuff up. And each week, you just start chipping away at that stuff.”