When thinking about how the lack of practice time will hurt NFL teams most, it’s easy to be concerned about offensive line performance, where chemistry is paramount to success. But the same could be similarly said for the defensive backfield, where it’s critical for a team’s safeties and cornerbacks to be on the same page in coverage to slow down a league full of pass-happy offensive attacks.
In recent years, the Detroit Lions have had the benefit of roster consistency in the back end. Changes have obviously occurred, but they were gradual, easing year-to-year transitions. But in 2020, the team is facing the prospect of entering the season with three new starters — Duron Harmon, Desmond Trufant and rookie Jeff Okudah.
Even after trading away three-time Pro Bowler Darius Slay this offseason, you can argue the current collective of individual pieces makes for a more-talented unit overall. But with the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the early portion of the offseason program to a virtual setting, the new-look secondary will be given less than a month on the practice field to learn each other’s tendencies prior to the season-opener against Chicago on Sept. 13.
“It’s an ongoing process. The only way you get on the same page and stay on the same page — just keep working, keep grinding,” Harmon said in a video conference with reporters on Tuesday. “We got some new faces in the secondary and it’s going to take time. The good thing about this group, you know, just being around these guys for these last two weeks is that we got a lot of grinders. We got a lot of people who are going to put the work in to get to where we need to be a good secondary to where our team can rely on us to cover, tackle, communicate and protect the deep part of the field.”
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Harmon, acquired from New England in an offseason trade, comes to Detroit having played in one of the NFL’s top secondaries last year. That means he also comes with experience in coach Matt Patricia’s scheme, having played under him when he was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator.
As for Trufant and Okudah, they should benefit from Detroit’s emphasis on playing man-coverage on the outside, which places a greater emphasis on individual technique, even if there’s still an underlying responsibility to know how you work with the other parts of the defense.
Harmon, a seven-year veteran, said there will be clear indicators on when things are starting to click with his new teammates.
“Yeah, multiple practices with no MEs (mental errors),” he said. “You know, going through a practice where everybody is communicating, it’s just flawless. And it takes time. This training camp, we know there’s going to be mistakes, but when we go through a practice where everybody knows where they’re supposed to be and making their calls and everybody is on their guys, I think that’s when we’ll have some type of telling to where we’re at and how well we’re jelling.”
In addition to his abilities on the field, the Lions will also be looking to Harmon to serve as a mentor for his young teammates in the backfield, especially Okudah and Tracy Walker.
So far, Harmon has liked what he’s seen from the duo.
“Nothing but great impressions. Obviously, two talented players,” Harmon said. (With Tracy), you see the talent. You see all the tools that could make him a great player, it’s just about continuing to get those reps and just continuing to try and get better each and every day. You see that, how we work out, how’s he’s always trying to be competitive, trying to win. One of the first guys in the weight room, has great energy each and every day.
“And Jeff, I mean, third overall pick. The talent is there, for sure. He’s always asking me questions about stuff, asking me questions about how the room worked in New England. (He’s) a guy that’s just trying to learn. Like I said, he obviously has a lot of talent. What he did in college, that was college. Obviously the NFL is a different beast, but just what I’ve seen so far is exciting.”