The ingenuity of Detroit’s offensive mastermind Ben Johnson may be the hot topic across the NFL, but Lions colleague Aaron Glenn is quietly piecing together one of the most impressive coaching starts to the 2023 season.
Johnson is the league’s next weird and wacky ace in offensive trigonometry and architecture, dialling up snaps directly to his running back with his quarterback already under center and motioning offensive tackle Penei Sewell into battering-ram screens while reigniting the career of Jared Goff as he hurtles towards a head coaching role at the top level.
Beside him defensive coordinator Glenn has shunned past criticism and questions over his job security to warrant drastic improvement from a now top-10 unit across the opening weeks of the campaign.
Sky Sports NFL’s Jason Bell played with Glenn during his time with the Houston Texans, with his former team-mate’s early success coming as no surprise.
October 15, 2023, 9:15pm
“He was a first rounder, he’s a guy that’s had the spotlight on him his entire career,” says Bell. “So this is the kind of person you have teaching you, this is the kind of a leader you have. Everybody wants to break down the schematics and what it is he is doing and all that, but my focus when I look at him and the message I want to get out is he is a teacher who understands how to make sure he gets the best out of players.
“That’s his true intent. That’s what he wants. He’s that kind of person. He wants you to do great. And a lot of times people coach and do things for different reasons. This guy has made enough money. He’s done enough good things in his life, and to still be out there it’s because he wants to see players achieve their goals the same way he did. He’s very easy to follow.”
- Cleveland Browns – Assistant defensive backs coach (2014-2015)
- New Orleans Saints – Defensive backs coach (2016-2020)
- Detroit Lions – Defensive coordinator (2021-present)
The Lions defense currently sits seventh in total yards per game (up from last in 2022), 17th in passing (up from 30th), third in rushing (up from 29th) and 15th in scoring (up from 28th). It is, meanwhile, 10th in EPA/play, 16th in dropback success rate and sixth in rush success rate in a rise from 31st, 27th and 29th, respectively, last season.
It also sits seventh in pressure rate while allowing a third-fewest yards per carry on the ground. Glenn has installed harmony with which to complement and reward the invention of Johnson’s offense.
“He knows how to talk to people,” adds Bell. “He knows how to deal with adversity as a player and as a team. So you’re getting all these benefits from somebody. When he tells you how to get right, he tells you how to play better and he tells you the process, you’re going to believe it.
“He is so cerebral, he’s next level with it. And he understood the entire defense which is different. A lot of times defensive backs know their position group and they’re specialists in that, but he knew how everything fit together.
“He just knows what players do well, they trust him. And he’s able to give them the proper information to help them and set them up for success knowing what their skills are. So all this doesn’t shock me. It just makes sense. It’s confirming what I already knew. None of this is a surprise.”
Even now, Bell credits Glenn for playing a pivotal role in helping him adjust to life in the NFL.
“We played together at Houston all my time there and he was our best corner,” he says. “He was a fascinating player. Because at corner being that size at 5ft 9ins you didn’t see guys be that successful. He was fast, he was smart, he was instinctive. He worked harder than anybody, he was cerebral as a player. I remember asking him one time ‘How do you watch film?’ and he said ‘okay, come with me in the morning, show up at this time and I’ll show you how I do it’.
“I learned how he processed and copied and used it as my own. He showed me how to break down film, get ready for my opponent. When you’re a player you get a breakdown from the coaches on your opponent; everything like that Aaron used to write himself.
“He was doing all the work the coaches had already done, because he wanted to understand.”
His unit has been led up front by 2022 second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, who has posted 4.5 sacks, a league-high 22 pressures, a league-leading 13 hurries, four tackles for loss, an interception, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Rookie safety Brian Branch has, meanwhile, been another driving force against both the pass and run having slipped into the second round earlier this year.
“When a player or a coach, especially a pass rusher or quarterback, fits this mould of a city, that’s the essence of the NFL life, ‘I’m in this place. I’m in Detroit, this is who we are’,” says Bell. “Aidan Hutchinson fits it. He wants to be there.
“He plays with the respect and the intensity of someone who’s playing for their local high school team. It’s just that kind of pride. When you have several players or one player that is like that, everybody else kind of feeds off of it. And your cultural identity is set because somebody is from there and understands people there.”
Glenn and Bell played together under a coach in Vic Fangio whose light-box, rotating coverages and two-high safety scheme continues to be utilised in its own tinkered and evolved interpretations across the league today as teams seek to eradicate chunk field-flipping plays downfield. In many ways, the modern design of NFL defenses is made for him.
“We were disguising things and moving around, but what it ended up being was man-to-man coverage or zone pattern match coverage, because we had Aaron Glenn.
- Age: 51
- College: Texas A&M
- NFL Draft: 1994, Round 1, Pick 12 (New York Jets)
- Playing history: Jets (1994-2001), Texans (2002-2004), Cowboys (2005-2006),, Jaguars (2007), Saints (2008)
- 3x Pro Bowler (1997, 1998, 2002)
- First-Team All Pro (2002)
“I’ve seen games where Vic Fangio played man-to-man the entire game because we had Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman, and he went back on the plane and saw them sleeping and went ‘they deserve it!’. He could play the ball in the air, he was fast, he understood route combinations, he has all the skills that would be necessary to be a top corner in today’s NFL. He would have been one of the best in the NFL right now.
“So everything that’s happening, he’s seen and done. People just rinse and repeat things and put their own flavour on how they call plays but nothing is being reinvented. He played for Bill Parcels and he played for Vic Fangio. He’s seen so much and that’s what makes them able to call defenses the way he does because he understands the history and philosophy behind people’s approaches.”
Glenn followed Dan Campbell from the New Orleans Saints upon his appointment as Lions head coach in 2021, before coming under pressure as his defense ranked fourth-worst in total yards and second-worst in scoring on the way to a 3-13-1 record.
While Campbell’s faith has seemingly never waivered, Glenn’s future came under scrutiny again during a 1-6 start to the 2022 campaign, before eight wins in the final 10 games pointed towards the new chapter that had been promised but delayed-in-arrival in Detroit.
“When you look at Deion Sanders and what he’s doing in coaching and how people are commenting on things he’s doing, you think a guy that played corner, one of the toughest and most pressured positions can worry about what people are saying. It’s impossible,” says Bell.
“He wants to do well, but he’s not worried about what other people think, because he knows all he can control is what he’s doing at work.”
Offensive coordinator Johnson is expected to feature high on the wish-list of teams searching for a new head coach over the coming years. Should his defense stay true to its early form, Glenn may well also enter the discussion as a potential candidate.
“I think his name is around,” said Bell. “I think it’s already being considered. He’s on a watch list. He has a great name in the NFL. He’s a great guy. He’s very responsible. He’s the kind of person you want to lead your team. He always has been.
“He has a superb reputation in the NFL, so owners know who he is.”
Watch Glenn’s Detroit Lions face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday live on Sky Sports NFL from 9.25pm, following on from the Seattle Seahawks at the Cincinnati Bengals in the 6pm kick-off.