As part of our ongoing NFL free agency coverage, we will be breaking down film on each of the top Detroit Lions’ recent acquisitions. Next up is defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
Gardner-Johnson is coming off of a monster 2022 season with the Philadelphia Eagles, and is another player Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes kept tabs on throughout the duration of free agency. Several phone calls on his way home from Allen Park later, and he was able to bring in one of the more highly sought-after free agents on what is, by all accounts—an absolute bargain of a contract.
In this study, I am going to be watching a couple of games of Gardner-Johnson’s time with the New Orleans Saints and his then secondary coach, now current defensive coordinator—Aaron Glenn. There has been a lot made of Glenn’s and Gardner-Johnson’s relationship, which stems all the way back to when the young defensive back was in high school, and was coached by Glenn at Nike’s “The Opening”.
Now the two are reunited in Detroit, and will be looking to build upon an already strong foundation. Gardner-Johnson gained valuable experience by going to Philadelphia and being an integral part of their Super Bowl run, and Glenn now has two years of experience being a defensive coordinator in the NFL. Now with all of that said, let’s get into the film.
Previously: Breaking down Cameron Sutton’s game, breaking down Emmanuel Moseley’s game.
2020 Week 3 - Green Bay Packers
The year is 2020 and Gardner-Johnson is a fiery young nickel cornerback in only his second year in the NFL. And in Week 3, he would face the Green Bay Packers along with the eventual 2020 NFL MVP in quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In this game, one thing that immediately popped off the screen for me was Gardner-Johnson’s love of contact. Some defensive backs shy away from physicality, while others like Gardner-Johnson seem to relish it.
As he did for most of the 2020 season, Gardner-Johnson saw the vast majority of his reps against Green Bay come in the slot. Below, we are looking at the opening offensive series for the Packers, where they have encountered a third and long situation. Before the snap, you can see Gardner-Johnson in communication with his teammates in the center of the field. Once snapped, he gets depth with his drop, sees Rodgers check down to tight end Robert Tonyan, and comes up to make the stop on the much bigger ball carrier to force the punt.
In the next clip, you can find Gardner-Johnson circled towards the bottom of your screen—operating in the slot. Almost instantly, the young defensive back sniffs out the screen Green Bay is trying to run, and wastes little time in blowing things up. Gardner-Johnson pops Allen Lazard in the mouth, sheds the blocker, and gets the ball carrier on the ground. This is teach-tape for young defensive backs out there on how to defend screen concepts on the outside.
In the final clip below from the Green Bay game, you will see Gardner-Johnson display perfect eye discipline for a defensive back. Late in fourth quarter, the Packers are working down in the low-red with Rodgers under center. In an effort to get eyes moving and the defense flowing the wrong way, Rodgers sends running back Aaron Jones in a jet-motion, prompting Gardner-Johnson to shuffle towards the center and motion towards his teammates that someone else will need to pick up Jones in coverage. Unphased by the eye candy from Green Bay, Gardner-Johnsons stays disciplined, and does a good job of sticking to veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis as he attempts to get open near the goal line.
2020 Week 11 - Atlanta Falcons
Later in the season, the Saints are hosting the Atlanta Falcons, and former Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has his team in the red zone on the first series of the game. You will find Gardner-Johnson circled near the top of your screen, matched up with wide receiver Russell Gage in the slot. Gage runs a whip route, breaking back towards Ryan, but Gardner-Johnson has a beat on Ryan’s eyes—breaking off from Gage and getting a hand on the ball before it has an opportunity to get to the receiver. Excellent awareness and elite reaction were both on display during this rep.
In the next clip below, we are still in the first quarter, with Ryan operating out of the shotgun. And while this won’t show up in the box score, Gardner-Johnson was still integral in stopping this run before it really had a chance to get started. The outside receiver in the bunch did his best to block Gardner-Johnson, but he was having none of it—easily shedding the would-be-blocker. From there, he gets down hill in a flash—tripping up one of the pulling blockers in the process, and, as a result—stringing out the ball carrier towards the sideline for a short gain.
The more I watch of Gardner-Johnson, the more I understand why Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is so high on him. Sure, he is a dynamic athlete that has a nose for the football, but it is more than just that. It’s the little things that he does that lead to the splash plays we see on highlight reels.
Take this next clip below as an example. The Saints have the Falcons in a third-and-long scenario. Gage is sent in motion towards the top of your screen, with Gardner-Johnson staying with him as he relocates. As Gardner-Johnson is moving, he is simultaneously in communication with cornerback Janoris Jenkins about switching assignments. The play ends without the ball leaving Ryan’s hand, but still, after communication was such an issue for the Lions’ secondary last year, this kind of play is a welcomed sight. Gardner-Johnson’s ability to communicate with his teammates in the secondary shows up time and time again.
Below, Ryan is working out of an empty set on his own 15-yard line. With it being third-and-7, New Orleans opts to go with man coverage across the board and a safety deep, leaving Gardner-Johnson in one-on-one coverage with Gage. Gage gets a decent outside release, and gains a step on Gardner-Johnson as he works towards the sideline. Unbothered, the former Florida Gator remains in-phase with the receiver, watches Gage’s hands, and sticks out his left arm as the ball arrives—knocking the pass to the ground and causing an incompletion. A big time play for Gardner-Johnson that gets the defense off of the field and forces a punt.
2020 Week 12 - Denver Broncos
In our last game of Gardner-Johnson’s time in New Orleans, we jump forward one week—to Week 12 where the Saints are on the road, squaring off with the Denver Broncos. And due to the Broncos having major issues at the quarterback position due to COVID-19 complications, this wasn’t the prettiest or most evenly-fought game—but there were a few instances in which Gardner-Johnson flashed part of what makes him special as a defender.
In the first clip from this game below, he shows off more of his skills in man-coverage, running step-for-step with Broncos’ tight end Noah Fant. Starting out in the slot, Fant gets a clean release to the outside of Gardner-Johnson, and sprints towards the sideline. Gardner-Johnson is in phase the entire time, waits for Fant to show his hands, and gets his head around to make a play on the ball.
In the clip below, this was a complete YOLO ball (shoutout Erik Schlitt) from Broncos’ quarterback Kendall Hinton, but good things happen when you are where you are supposed to be as a defender. Count that as one more thing that stuck out to me as I watched Gardner-Johnson’s tape—when he has an opportunity to make a big play for his team, odds are, the play is being made.
2022 Week 5 - Arizona Cardinals
During his time in Philadelphia, Gardner-Johnson still spent some time in the slot (208 snaps in 2022, according to PFF), but 443 of his 872 snaps were spent at free safety. And, like in New Orleans, he also spent plenty of time around the line of scrimmage. This is where the fourth-year safety truly began to show just how multi-faceted his game can be.
In the first clip, you will find Gardner-Johnson circled, walking into the box as the ball is snapped to Cardinals’ quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray quickly throws the ball to wide receiver Rondale Moore on an out route, but the ball is a bit high, and Gardner-Johnson delivers a well-timed hit—jarring the ball loose from the speedy Moore.
On the very next series in the clip below, we have yet another YOLO ball, this time from Murray. The Eagles are in man-coverage, with Gardner-Johnson as the deep safety help. Reading Murray’s eyes the whole way, Gardner-Johnson was able to easily flip his hips, and high-point an errant pass intended for wide receiver Marquise Brown.
2022 Week 10 - Washington Commanders
In their second matchup with Washington of the year, Gardner-Johnson had one of his more all-around performances—five total tackles, one quarterback hit, one pass break-up, and one interception.
From a schematic standpoint, I like what Washington was trying to set up here. The pre-snap motion and play-action were both designed to freeze defenders, even if it’s just for an instant. That way, the offensive line has time to get in position to block for wide receiver Terry McLaurin. A lot of things went right for Washington on this rep, but Gardner-Johnson may indeed have Sharingan-level visual prowess. He isn’t tempted by any of the eye candy, breaks down and makes a textbook tackle on the ball-carrier.
Next we have Gardner-Johnson again providing support over the top—this time assisting cornerback Darius Slay. Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke doesn’t bother to look off McLaurin, and uncorks a deep pass into the endzone. However, Gardner-Johnson had seemingly been tracking the ball as long as McLaurin had, and nearly came down with an interception. Beyond making him a fearsome hitter, Gardner-Johnson’s aggressiveness also bleeds into how he always attacks the ball at its highest point.
In the final clip of this review, the Eagles are showing a two-high look—expecting Washington to try them again down the field. And again, Heinicke tries McLaurin against Slay, with the receiver a few steps in front of the veteran cornerback. The pass is a little underthrown, and the rest is all Gardner-Johnson. He times his jump perfectly, outmaneuvers McLaurin for the ball, and comes down with one of his six interceptions on the year.
All of this talent and versatility for someone who will still be 25 years old when the 2023 season begins. Hard to not be ecstatic about Gardner-Johnson landing in Detroit.