Offensive holding penalties plummeted in the NFL last season, and after hosting officials for the second straight practice Wednesday, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell said there is reason to believe that trend will continue in 2021.
“That was one of the things that I had kind of wondered about, like, ‘Are those going to stay down? Are we kind of trending that way?'” Campbell said. “And I guess, not even so much a point of emphasis it is what guys, we believe it’s being called the right way. So that would lead you to believe that, OK, offensively there is — I’m not saying anything has changed philosophy-wise, but I would tell you, ‘OK man, offensively it’s not going to be as nitpicky as it’s been.’”
According to Pro Football Reference, officials threw 36% fewer holding flags last season than they did in 2019, part of a broader decline in offensive penalties that helped ratchet up scoring across the league.
A record five NFL teams averaged 30-plus points last season, and league-wide the completion percentage soared to a best-ever 65.2%.
On one hand, that should benefit a Lions team that will have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL this season. If Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker and Co. can get away with even a little bit more, they will be tough to beat.
On the other, I have my doubts that the Lions, who have not looked particularly crisp on offense through the first week of training camp, have the horses to keep up with the league’s collection of even-more-empowered high-octane offenses.
Campbell said he encouraged players to seek out input on the nuances of the rule book and why certain flags are thrown while veteran referee Scott Novak and his crew were in town this week, and I saw that happen on at least one occasion Wednesday.
Amani Oruwariye was called for a questionable defensive penalty, holding or pass interference, during one-on-one drills when Kalif Raymond appeared to slip on his route. Oruwariye spent the better part of a minute discussing the play with an official.
Defensive pass interference penalties ticked up last season, and given the league’s commitment to offense, that may happen again this fall.
As for offensive holding, Campbell said it is trending in the direction that only “truly blatant” holds will be called and that is important for players on both sides of the ball to realize.
“As long as we’re aware of that, (that’s fine),” he said. “And that tells me defensively man, it’s got to be all out, violent separation, whatever it takes so that the refs sees the struggle to get out. I’m outside his framework. Those are things I think of.”
More notes and observations from Wednesday’s practice:
• A number of players, Julian Okwara, D’Andre Swift, John Penisini and Jerry Jacobs among them, left Wednesday’s practice for what appeared to be injury reasons, leaving the Lions light on bodies for what was their longest (about 2 1/2 hours, including a half-hour walk-through) and most physical practice of summer.
Swift has had a lighter workload than some other Lions running backs in recent days, so while his departure Tuesday did not seem out of the ordinary — he jogged to the locker room under his own power and did not have a trainer in tow — it still was notable.
Okwara spent several minutes stretching his side for trainers before heading to the locker room late in practice. He returned at the end of practice without pads.
Jacobs, who has had a solid camp so far, also talked briefly with trainers before leaving. He returned at the end, without pads and with what looked to be a compression sleeve on his right calf.
I did not see what happened to Penisini, but his absence left the rest of his defensive linemates — already without Michael Brockers and Levi Onwuzerike for the second straight day — to absorb even more reps on a hot day. And while Raymond was one of the last players off the field, he made his way to the locker room with a noticeable limp.
• Alim McNeill had another huge day at nose tackle, giving the second-team offensive line fits in Penisini’s absence. I wrote plenty about McNeill on Tuesday, but he absolutely demolished one running play in a nine-on-seven drill early in practice when he knifed past young center Evan Heim.
“He’s a freak,” backup lineman Evan Boehm said. “The kid’s good. The kid’s going to be, if he keeps his nose to the ground and keeps working, he’s going to be a great addition to this defensive line. I mean, the kid’s got all the tools. He’s powerful, he’s quick. When he lines up head up at nose, you never know what’s going to happen. You’ve got to play that mind game with him a little bit, him being a rookie, but he’s wise beyond his years for sure.”
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• I did not catch much of that nine-on-seven drill as the Lions had one-on-one passing drills going on at the same time on the adjacent field, but Austin Bryant did make a nice play late in the period when he ran through a Jason Cabinda block to stuff a ball carrier for a loss.
Bryant has a well-documented injury history and is making the same position change this summer as Trey Flowers and the Okwara brothers. He’ll have to earn a roster spot this preseason, and will need more plays like that to stick around.
• I mentioned the physical nature of Wednesday’s practice, the Lions had a one-on-one live tackling period early in practice in which players lined up about 10 yards apart down a simulated sideline. The ball carrier started close to where the sideline was, with the defender angled maybe 5 yards inside.
We did not have a great view of the drill from our perch on the media bleachers, but a few things stood out. First, the fact that the Lions did live tackling on Day 2 of pads. Often, coaches save live tackling drills for goal line or other specific periods deeper into camp. Second, Amon-Ra St. Brown showed off his open-field moves by hurdling an unknown defender on the first play of the drill and beating Mike Ford down the sideline in his second rep. And third, it wasn’t a great showing for the Lions’ inside linebackers. Jahlani Tavai looked slow changing directions against Brock Wright. Jamie Collins seemed to give a half-hearted effort against T.J. Hockenson. And Jermar Jefferson was too fast for Anthony Pittman.
• Third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu had his first interception of camp Wednesday, picking off an underthrown Jared Goff pass intended for Tyrell Williams in one-on-one drills. Williams, who dislocated the pinky finger on his left hand Tuesday, practiced Wednesday with tape on his fingers and said he felt no residual pain.
Jacobs made a nice play to break up a Goff pass to Breshad Perriman on the next play. Jacobs played trail coverage on Perriman on a deep corner route and never turned his head to see the ball in the air, but reacted quickly when Perriman reached to catch the ball and knocked it out of his hands.
• I’d be stunned if Ford isn’t one of this team’s starting gunners. The Lions spent a few minutes downing punts inside the 5-yard line Wednesday. Jack Fox was perfect punting the ball in the drill, and Ford made two difficult plays look easy, racing to the goal line and turning to tap the ball in time to keep it out of the end zone.
• Bruce Hector has only been here a few days, but he took advantage of a rookie mistake by Penei Sewell to force a Godwin Igwebuike fumble early in team drills. Sewell either whiffed on a block or didn’t account for Hector in his assignment, giving Hector a free run at the ball carrier. When the ball hit the grass, the defense erupted in celebration.
• The defense remains clearly ahead of the offense at this point, and I’m starting to worry about the offense’s ability to generate points and yards this fall. I keep reminding myself it’s early, and that Goff and Co. are still feeling each other out. But with the first preseason game about a week out, I want to see more consistency in the passing game and more big-play capability.
Backup quarterbacks Tim Boyle and David Blough have both done some good things at times during camp, but the offense’s struggles were especially evident Wednesday when the second-team offensive line was on the field, leaving the running game toothless.
• One final note: Detroit Tigers outfielders Akil Baddoo and Derek Hill took in Wednesday’s practice and even caught some balls off the JUGS machine before they left. Baddoo said he played football in high school — “They used to call me Michael Vick back in the day,” he said — while Hill gave up the sport in junior high. Hill did crank the JUGS machine up a little faster than Baddoo, who said he was saving his hands for the night’s baseball game.