WESTFIELD, Ind. — The Detroit Lions struggled throughout their first day of joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts. They were bad during seven-on-sevens and worse during one-on-ones. It was a bloodbath, and even Dan Campbell couldn’t sugarcoat it.
“I won’t even talk about one-on-ones,” said the man who will talk about just about anything. Like, have you seen “Hard Knocks?” Then you can understand just how bad those one-on-ones must have been to leave Dan Campbell speechless.
The Lions cut up the film with players on Wednesday. Coaches challenged players to draw a line in the sand and say that’s enough. They were looking for guys to show they can compete, even against one of the top contenders in the AFC.
“You want to know you don’t look out of place,” Campbell said.
On Day 2, they responded to the challenge.
They looked like they belonged.
That was especially true on defense. Indianapolis ran 12 plays during red-zone work, and the Lions defense didn’t allow a touchdown on any of them. Not even on back-to-back snaps from the 1-yard line — one of which was blown up by ascendent linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez. The sixth-round pick blew threw the line of scrimmage and wrapped up Jonathan Taylor — one of the best backs in the league — for a loss.
Then they moved on to 2-minute drills. The first and second units got one series apiece — and neither of them allowed so much as a first down. Cornerback AJ Parker broke up Matt Ryan’s fourth-and-3 pass to Michael Pittman to get the ones off the field for the ones, while safety Juju Hughes made a fourth-down tackle on a pass to De’Michael Harris with the twos.
OK, sure, the Colts also declined a pass interference call against Amani Oruwariye on that series, which helped set up a certain look they wanted. Still, this was a big-time statement from a defense that was gutted on Wednesday. That was especially true on the perimeter, where big wideouts like Michael Pittman (6-foot-4) and Alec Pierce (6-3) ate up cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye on Day 1.
A day later, the Colts could barely move the ball at all, much less score.
That sure seems like progress.
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“We knew they were going to come out smoking today,” defensive end Austin Bryant said. “And they did. They had a hot start. But I think we came together. After we got a few plays under our belt, you can certainly start to see the chemistry between everyone on our unit. And man, that’s so encouraging to see, coming from where we’re coming from a year ago.
“Man, it means everything (not to allow any points). As we all know, this is a points league. No matter what happens on the field, if you can stop them from getting points in the red zone — from scoring touchdowns and settling for field goals — we’ll take that all day long. Because I mean, there are too many talented guys in this league. They’re going to get yards, they’re going to move the ball down the field. The most important thing is, can you stop them from scoring points? I think we showed that today.”
Sure did. And it’s building belief within the team that it’s good enough to compete right now.
“It’s been great to go up against a team like this, that won, what, nine games last season? Eleven games the season before? Playoff contender the last couple years, great tradition?” Bryant said. “To come out here and practice against a team like this does us nothing but good heading into the season. It’s been a great couple days.”
Let’s get to some more comments. Once again, colleague Ben Raven is joining me for these because so much is happening all at once. We flipped sides of the ball today though, so I’m taking the Lions defense while Ben has thoughts on a better day from the offense too.
— There are bigger names to get to (like Jeff Okudah, and I’ll address him in a moment). But I’d be handed over if I didn’t single out the man you just heard from first. Austin Bryant racked up three sacks today, and was such a problem that he was drawing double-teams by day’s end. It was a signature moment from a guy who has been a wrecking ball throughout camp. He’s flashed this kind of ability for years, but always struggled to put it together while bogged down by injuries and coaching malpractice. Then he stayed healthy last year, racked up the first 4.5 sacks of his career, then was finally able to focus on his game rather than rehab this offseason. Throw in a more attacking style of pass rush that better fits his skill set, and that’s how you end up with a fourth-year pro playing like never before. He won’t start because of the arrival of Aidan Hutchinson and return of Charles Harris on the edge, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t look like the next-best guy right now. His development has taken a lot of the sting out of losing pass rushers like second-round pick Josh Paschal, former third-round pick Julian Okwara and one-time sack leader Romeo Okwara to injuries. The Lions will eventually need those guys too — but for now, Bryant’s Year 4 leap is something to celebrate.
“I think it just comes with experience, man,” Bryant told me after practice. “I’m going into my fourth year. You all know my story. I’ve dealt with injuries. I finally got a good two offseasons of being healthy. I’m finally in a scheme where I feel it fits how I like to play. Finally in a culture where I get to work hard, have fun and be ourselves. I think it’s just been the fruits of that process. Like I said, I’m grateful for my teammates because all of us together is what makes everybody go. I’m just grateful for this year, grateful to be in this position, and hopefully give the city something to be proud about.” (Kyle)
— OK, let’s get to Okudah. I was so curious to see how he’d respond to getting his hindparts lit on fire on Day 1, and specifically asked Campbell about him before practice knowing I’d probably be writing about him.
“Look, I would say this: When we challenge and use our length, we did pretty good,” Campbell said. “When we didn’t and we allowed free releases, we didn’t do as well. I thought actually Amani (Oruwariye) was the most consistent and I thought he came to play. And look, I thought they all did, but I think that’s what you’re learning — really it’s with all groups, whether you’re getting one-on-one or now you’re getting in new situations with a new opponent and some of the fundamentals just go away. And it’s like, ‘No guys, do what you do every day in practice, that we’ve been teaching, it is helping you get better.’ Some of our guys reverted back to the stuff that don’t work. They kind of did it their own way, and so we just got to refocus them and get them to just trust in what we’re teaching them, like they’ve been doing in practice against each other, and we’ll be OK. ”
A day later, Jeff Okudah was better than OK. He had perhaps his best day of the year. The Lions and Colts opened with seven-on-seven drills in the red zone, and Okudah broke up the only pass thrown his way, intended for Mike Strachan. He also helped force Matt Ryan to pocket the football on another play because there was nowhere to throw.
Then they moved to 11-on-11 work, and Okudah was with the first team at left cornerback. First snap, he jammed his guy so badly that he was taken out of the play. The next pass came his way while in coverage against Michael Pittman — and he broke up that one too. And this is how it went all day for Okudah. He’s been up-and-down throughout camp, which is how he’s found himself splitting first-team snaps with a failed safety. And hey, this was just one day too. I’m certainly not ready to say he’s back, because I’ve seen too much of the bad stuff. But this was a step in the right direction, no doubt about that. (Kyle)
— The offense wasn’t as good as the defense on Day 2, but it improved too. Running back Jamaal Williams had the top play of the day, trucking Colts defensive back Kenny Moore on a run up the middle for an impressive 10-yard touchdown. That score came after defensive linemen Grover Stewart and Kwity Paye stuffed him at the line, so a nice recovery for the veteran back. Williams screamed as he scored, later saying he was letting them know nobody was stopping him from the end zone. (Well)
— Lions quarterback Jared Goff got off to a sloppy start, botching a handoff to D’Andre Swift when they appeared to bump into each other. Goff then had an ugly misfire for Jamaal Williams on an easy swing route a couple of plays later. Goff did get it clicking in seven-on-sevens and the 2 -minute situation, though. He completed 6 of 8 passes for four touchdowns in seven-on-sevens. (Well)
— It wouldn’t be an observations post without a Malcolm Rodriguez update, and yes, the kid continued to mash with the first-team defense. He started alongside Alex Anzalone and made two of the biggest plays of the day, one of which was stuffing Jonathan Taylor in the backfield on a play at the goal line. His speed, vision and instincts belie his youth, not to mention his spot in the draft. A lot of sixth-round picks never make the team at all. No sixth-round pick has started for the Lions straight out of training camp since 1987. And the Lions would prefer not to put so much on the kid’s shoulders either. They’ve warned their veterans to play better, or Rodriguez would surpass them on the depth chart. But they just haven’t done it. Chris Board and Jarrad Davis have simply been outplayed by Rodriguez. Derrick Barnes too, for that matter. At this point, all signs point to Rodriguez starting in the heart of Detroit’s defense when the season opens on Sept. 11 against Philadelphia. (Kyle)
— David Blough got more reps than Tim Boyle with the second offense on Day 2, and completed 5 of 6 passes during seven-on-sevens. Boyle hit 2 of 4 attempts during that drill, then had a rough showing in the red-zone period. The backup threw an errant jumping pass into the end zone that Colts linebacker EJ Speed easily intercepted. Boyle also missed Kalil Pimpleton open across the middle that looked like an easy score. (Well)
— The offensive line had an up-and-down showing in one-on-one drills. Colts defensive tackle Grover Stewart beat Frank Ragnow on consecutive reps, and put the Pro Bowler in the turf on one of them. Ragnow won the first matchup while holding his own against Stewart’s attempt to power though. Penei Sewell got beat to the inside by Paye, then kept his footing when the former Michigan standout tried to get outside on the next rep. Sewell showed an impressive first step on the snap he won. Taylor Decker had two strong showings against Colts defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. All in all, it wasn’t a dominating day for the offensive line. But they surrendered only one sack in team drills, when Colts defensive end Ben Banogu beat Lions tackle Obinna Eza. (Well)
— During one-on-ones on the other side of the field, Detroit’s pass rushers showed some teeth against a very good Colts defensive line. Aidan Hutchinson blew past Jordan Murray for an easy sack, while Alim McNeill overpowered Ryan Kelly on their final rep and Charles Harris used a hesitation move to overwhelm Ryan Van Demark. And yes, there was a “Billie Jean”-inspired jump kick from Hutchinson after a sack. (Kyle)
— Props to the Lions for a couple of impressive play designs that resulted in big plays. Trinity Benson had a 60-yard touchdown catch after Goff faked a handoff, then faked it to Benson on the end-around, after which the receiver streaked down the sideline on a wheel route. Benson caught it in stride with enough separation to waltz into the end zone. On another play, speedy undrafted rookie wideout Kalil Pimpleton moved to the outside as a decoy, which made room for tight end Shane Zylstra to take the screen in for the 15-yard touchdown.
Zylstra had another strong day. He was Brough’s favorite target in the two-minute drill. Besides the touchdown, the tight end had an impressive grab along the sideline on an outside post for 20 yards. Zylstra broke a handful of tackles while adding yards after the catch. Tight end James Mitchell got a couple of chances today. The rookie, who continues to work back from an ACL injury, took a hard shot on a contested ball down the sideline on an incomplete pass. But he was back on his feet to run to the sideline. And after Garrett Griffin’s release, Brock Wright got some reps at fullback while Jason Cabinda remains out with an ankle injury. (Well)