DETROIT — “Detroit ain’t seen nothin’ like this!” Lions defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson yelled out following an impressive defensive stop during a red zone drill.
Though it was early in his time with the Lions — so early that padded practices have yet to begin — his message was clear, even during a mandatory minicamp in June.
“[I’m] somebody who cares about the game,” Gardner-Johnson said during Lions minicamp. “I mean, you guys play good ball here, not to take away from you, but I don’t think guys have the fire that I have.
“Anybody around the league. In the Super Bowl you seen it, last year you seen it, year before last you seen it, the year that I got in Tom Brady’s face you seen it, so I think the passion that you guys see and energy, I’m just ready to win,” he added. “I’m not trying to take no steps off so losing the Super Bowl don’t mean take a step back.”
Lions coach Dan Campbell likes to refer to the offseason workout period as a “pajama party” for its low-intensity, but even he noticed a new enthusiasm within the defense, particularly in the secondary, with the addition of Gardner-Johnson — who signed with the Lions as a free agent this offseason — even this early.
From OTAs to workouts to mandatory minicamp, the former Philadelphia Eagles star has displayed a level of confidence that is already impacting his teammates.
“Yeah look, he’s got a contagious energy. And there again, I just bring it up, as long as it’s not affecting your job, and you stay focused on the job at hand, I think one of the reasons C.J. is that way is because that’s how he gets his engine going,” Campbell said during mandatory minicamp on June 7. “And so, in turn, that just spills out into the offense, or your teammates, and you can’t help the level of intensity just, it raises.
“And I think that makes everybody around you better and more competitive because if you’re not reaching that level of intensity in practice, you’re probably going to get beat,” he added. “So that’s kind of why I like it. And there again, I’ll just bring it up again, it forces you to keep your composure too, if you’re on the opposite side of that.”
That could mean a lot for the Lions this season as they’re looking to improve a secondary that struggled badly and looked to improve by not only signing Gardner-Johnson, but also adding veteran cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, and then drafting Alabama’s Brian Branch in the second round.
“This spring was tougher than it was last spring. [That] might be the best way to put it,” said Lions quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell. “There’s some really good players on that side of the ball and that defense is only going to get better. With the new additions, it has been a challenge because it’s tough to separate against those guys and it’s been a fun part of this spring going against guys that have a lot of experience and have a lot of talent.”
In 2022, Detroit’s defense allowed 82 plays of 20-plus yards, which were the most in the NFL, while 23% of opponent plays went for 10 or more yards, which was the second-highest rate in the league.
Although he was in Philadelphia, Gardner-Johnson is aware of Detroit’s defensive struggles last season, and it doesn’t bother him.
With his veteran presence, on the heels of a Super Bowl appearance with the Eagles, he feels he can change that narrative. It’s a challenge he’s accepted.
“I saw a video on Instagram from the last time [the Lions] went to a home playoff game which was a win and the whole crowd was going crazy, and I think a guy was crying in the stands or something,” Gardner-Johnson said. “You’ve got to think about it, I want to bring that feeling back here.
“So, I think losing the Super Bowl then coming to a team that’s trying to understand winning, I think I can bring the culture over by leading by example and just showing them that you can change the city by just winning. So, that’s what I’m here for.”