Detroit Lions training camp observations: Punches fly at first padded practice

Detroit Free Press

When Dan Campbell played for Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 2000s, the Detroit Lions coach was Parcells’ designated antagonizer.

When the Cowboys were dragging through the dog days of training camp, or if they needed a jumpstart on an otherwise dull day, Campbell was the player Parcells pulled aside and asked to stir up some stuff.

“You’re two weeks into practice and you’d been through eight padded days, two-a-days, and guys are a little sloppy and he’d be like, ‘I want you to go up there and I want you to push Greg Ellis after the play. Just push him right in the back,'” Campbell recalled. “I’m like, ‘Bill, you know it’s going to piss him off?’ ‘Yeah, I know.’ So then you do it, and then it’s an all-out fight, but guys got energy and juice because now all of a sudden you get a fight — and then he yells at me for starting a fight. I’m like, ‘Bill, you told me to push the guy in the back.’ It was classic Bill.”

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Campbell told that story Tuesday and another about his first training camp practice as a rookie, when veteran New York Giants tight end Howard Cross warned him a brawl was about to break out before players even stepped on the field and sure enough “the first play and one of our D-lineman just slugs the crap out of our center,” as a way to illustrate what he did not want to see at the Lions’ first padded practice of minicamp.

“We’re not there yet,” Campbell said. “Give us a couple of weeks to get acclimated here to pads and stuff.”

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Campbell said he wanted players to toe the line of competition and combat and the first-year coach had to be smiling at the physical nature of practice Tuesday.

Alim McNeill had blood smeared on his jersey after practice, residual from a John Penisini hand injury. In half-line drills, a half dozen or so players ended up spewn on the ground. And in one special teams period, rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and rookie cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu had a physical exchange in an open-field blocking drill that ended with pushes and punches being thrown.

“Just a little competition,” St. Brown said. “The first day of pads are always like that.”

St. Brown and Melifonwu are teammates, draft classmates and friends — “That’s my boy,” St. Brown said — and they will remain so after Tuesday’s incident.

But their altercation encapsulated a high-spirited, intense day of practice that was a glimpse of what the Lions will be under Campbell, this fall and beyond.

More notes and observations from Tuesday‘s practice:

• A couple injury situations to watch as receiver Tyrell Williams left practice with a left hand injury and rookie second-round pick Levi Onwuzerike did not take part in team drills for undisclosed reasons. Williams walked off with trainers and returned to the field with his left pinky and ring fingers taped, but did not take part in anymore drills.

Rookie linebacker Derrick Barnes remains limited by a lingering hamstring issue, too. Barnes has not done much out of walk-throughs this summer, which has given a chance a chance for some of the Lions’ lesser-known linebackers to shine.

I wrote about linebacker Anthony Pittman in Monday’s observations, and Pittman was at it again Tuesday. He nearly had his second pick in as many days when he jumped a Jared Goff pass in the final team period of the day. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was complimentary of Pittman in his post-practice news conference when asked a general question about the inside linebacker position.

“A guy that really stands out is Pittman. I mean, he’s making plays on the ball, he’s running to the ball. You see the physical nature of him. There’s a lot of things about that player I like.”

• It was the first day of pads, so naturally I have plenty of thoughts on one-on-one drills. I was changing media bleachers to get a better vantage point and just caught the end of rookie right tackle Penei Sewell’s first rep in one-on-one pass rush, when Romeo Okwara beat him outside. I’d give Sewell the edge on his second rep, though, when he moved his feet well to keep Okwara at bay on an inside move.

I thought Sewell had a good day overall. I caught him overpower Julian Okwara once during half-line drills, when my attention was mostly focused on the one-on-one passing drills taking place on a different field. And you can’t miss his athleticism, the way he can get out to the second level on a run block.

Sewell’s biggest challenge right now is being consistent, and he’ll have his hands full with a good rusher all camp. Still, it’s easy to see why he was the No. 7 overall pick.

• Alim McNeill was the other rookie who had a standout day. McNeill did not move Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow in their one-on-one pass-rush rep, but he showed power and quick feet the rest of the day. In one 11-on-11 period, McNeill barely budged despite a double-team run block by Ragnow and, I believe, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and he overwhelmed undersized center Drake Jackson in their one-on-one pass rush rep.

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• More notes from one-on-one pass rush: Tyrell Crosby had a couple nice reps at right tackle, the position he seems to be most comfortable playing. The Lions truly have three starting-caliber tackles — Taylor Decker was dominant in his two reps against Trey Flowers and Julian Okwara — which is rare in the NFL. Crosby is a work in progress at guard, though, where he lost his rep to Jashon Cornell and could see time as a backup this fall.

Surprisingly, I thought Matt Nelson looked better at right guard than at tackle, where I would suspect that his length would play best. Nelson had a solid rep against Bruce Hector inside and has gotten steady work at guard this camp.

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On the defensive side, both Cornell and Charles Harris showed pass rush potential for a front that still seems light in that area.

• In one-on-one receiver drills, Kalif Raymond had a couple standout reps offensively. Raymond beat Tracy Walker with ease on a double move and had a step on Dean Marlowe on another route where Marlowe recovered to break up an underthrown pass. Raymond got plenty of first-team work after Williams left and had a solid showing in team drills, too.

As for Williams, he got bottled up by Jeff Okudah on their first rep, then beat the second-year cornerback off the line the second time they faced each other and used his arm to generate late separation. Tim Boyle made a beautiful throw to complete a pass to Sage Surratt to beat good coverage by Corn Elder, and Quintez Cephus beat Melifonwu twice for catches, one time pulling away with great separation at the point of his break.

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• Amani Oruwariye and Marlowe had interceptions in team drills, with Oruwariye’s coming on a poorly thrown deep ball by Goff to what appeared to be an open Surratt. Marlowe’s interception may have been nullified by a penalty flag thrown behind him, though I could not tell who the flag was on.

• Both Matthew Wright and Randy Bullock were a perfect 4-for-4 on field goals Tuesday and Wright dropped a few kickoffs inside the 5-yard line (which I assume was his intention).

The Lions dropped a couple surprise on-side kicks on their return team, too. Jahlani Tavai pounced on one to recover it for the return team, while Marlowe couldn’t squeeze the second attempt, which Darren Fells recovered for the kicking team.

• In the aforementioned special teams drill that led to Tuesday’s scuffle, an angle drill where a blocker coming from the side had to get in front of the coverage player, St. Brown stoned Melifonwu with a block the rookie cornerback could not release from. When the two exchanged positions later in the period, St. Brown seemed intent on driving Melifonwau straight back rather than changing direction and tagging the stationary return man.

Mike Ford, Jerry Jacobs and Robert McCray had good reps in coverage, while Marlowe, D’Angelo Amos, McCray and Charles Harris were among those who had standout blocks.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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