I attended Day 18 of Detroit Lions training camp on Monday — which sounds more like a hostage situation than an athletic endeavor — expecting to see things heating up in the first practice after their loss to the Buffalo Bills in the preseason opener.
Things always seem to tighten up with roster cuts right around the corner after the first preseason game. Teams have to trim their rosters from 90 to 85 by 4 p.m. Tuesday. A week later, another five players are cut. A week after that, it’s the big cut to 53 players.
So roster battles head up. Injuries seem to miraculously heal as players return to the field. Running back D’Andre Swift and, defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike, a second-round pick, are expected back Tuesday.
But I also expected to write about some of the toughness I saw in the Lions’ loss to Buffalo, specifically the toughness of the offensive line and running back Jamal Williams, who had two brutal and beautiful 1-yard runs up the gut for first downs on third-and-1 plays.
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Imagine that. A Lions running back who can gain tough yards when he needs them up the middle. Who would’ve thunk it?
“I think it says a lot,” coach Dan Campbell said of Williams’ tough runs. “To know that you have a guy that if it’s anywhere in that range he’s going to find a way to puncture the line of scrimmage and get you a first down, not only does that give you confidence as a play-caller and a head coach, it gives the offensive line a lot of confidence.
“Sometimes those guys (on the offensive line), subconsciously it happens and they need that a little bit. But to know that, ‘As long as I can get on this guy and I can cover whatsoever and just hold on here a little bit, Jamaal will find a way to get this first down.’ I think you do gain a lot of confidence as an offense. It certainly would make you much more (likely) or confident about going on a third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 to know a guy is going to be able to find a way to do it.”
I managed to finally corral (OK, beg) center Frank Ragnow to stop and talk to me after three failed attempts this summer. He’s the main man in the middle who makes these kinds of runs happen. I could see him lighting up just starting to talk about Williams’ runs.
“It’s huge for us,” he said. I think just having that down-home mentality, that like ground-and-pound mentality, we feed off that, believe it or not. So it’s huge for us.”
I never played offensive line. But I’ve spoken with enough O-linemen over the years to understand what it means to them to win in the trenches like that. I remember Edwin Mulitalo used to say that compared to the drudgery of pass protection, run blocking was like Christmas.
Honestly, the Lions just haven’t had enough of that brand of consistent hard-nosed running. I had high hopes for LeGarrette Blount and Adrian Peterson, but both of them were well past their primes and on their last legs.
Williams is only 26 and has so much juice left that he made sure to be a playful nuisance during Penei Sewell’s news conference Monday by yelling at him, then pounding on the glass from inside the training facility. (Hey, Jamaal, save a little for the season, will ya?)
I’m not as down on the Lions’ offense as some people who are denigrating an 18-play, 10-minute drive that results in only three points. First, sustained drives that lead to any kind of points matter. Second, Levi Wallace got away with a pretty obvious pass interference penalty when he grabbed Tyrell Williams’ jersey in the end zone on second-and-8 after a great throw by Jared Goff.
Most of the Lions’ offensive starters played just two drives, and the offense was without its two most potent weapons: Swift and T.J. Hockenson. Even if we don’t see them play at Pittsburgh this week, we should see more of a regular-season facsimile because Campbell said there will be more game-planning for the Steelers.
But there’s also one more point of toughness and perhaps even growth that I would like to mention. It came from Jahlani Tavai. The third-year linebacker is holdover from the previous regime, which over-drafted him in the second round. Now he’s fighting for a job and he had a terrible play that led to an easy touchdown by the Bills.
On Monday, Free Press writer Dave Birkett asked Tavai to talk. The setup isn’t great because reporters are cordoned off from players as they make their way into the locker room. It makes it very easy for them to ignore an interview request.
But Tavai stopped. And he spoke at length as other reporters converged. He owned his mistake and answered every question. He spoke of his love of competition and his desire to be in every play as though it were his last.
I don’t know if Tavai will keep his job, but he’s the kind of player you want to root for. Because Williams’ hard-nosed running clearly inspires his coaches and the offensive line, but Tavai’s attitude should inspire everyone else.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.