Detroit Lions observations: Training camp ends how it began – with a fight

Detroit Free Press

Dan Campbell welcomed the intensity of his first padded practice at training camp earlier this month, when rookies Amon-Ra St. Brown and Ifeatu Melifonwu scuffled during an open-field blocking drill, and the Detroit Lions coach had to be smiling inside when another skirmish broke out on what was essentially the last day of camp Wednesday.

“It’s a part of it,” assistant head coach Duce Staley said. “Been a part of it as a coach and a player, things flare up out there. We know this is a very competitive sport. It’s violent collisions that go on out there between the lines, so there’s going to be some attitudes out there and sometimes you’re going to see fights.”

Wednesday’s fracas was a little more involved than the one St. Brown and Melifonwu started camp with, as a scrum of players ended up on the ground.

I did not see how the fight started, but it happened not long after offensive tackle Matt Nelson and outside linebacker Rashod Berry tussled following a team rep.

Taylor Decker’s helmet came flying out of the pile during the altercation, and T.J. Hockenson made the veteran decision to avoid the pile altogether.

It’s no accident, I don’t think, that two bubble players scraped just before the scrum. Nelson and Berry are literally fighting for roster spots.

But my read from the media bleachers 50-ish yards away was that it was due more to the defense playing with noticeably more intensity than the offense as both sides took turns giving the other scout team looks.

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Defensive players seemed to get their hands on nearly every pass and punched loose or intercepted several balls. The offense, meanwhile, seemed to be playing at about 75% speed during both the period the fight happened in and the one before.

Asked if secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant had his unit too amped for practice, Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said, “I’m not going to answer that. I’m going to take the fifth on that.”

Whatever the root cause, it seemed like a fitting end to camp for a Lions team that will have to scrap its way to victories this year and in doing so will try to embody a coach in Campbell who does not take well to losing at anything.

More observations from Wednesday‘s practice:

• Jeff Okudah said Tuesday he is not dealing with an injury, but the Lions’ No. 1 cornerback did not practice again Wednesday. Okudah went through warm-ups and walk-throughs, but went straight to locker room during individual period after talking briefly with secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant.

Okudah underwent groin surgery last December, but has been a regular participant in practice up until now. Rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu took first-team reps in his absence Wednesday.

Da’Shawn Hand and Tyrell Williams, both dealing with groin injuries, also did not practice Wednesday.

• Campbell was absolutely stating the obvious Wednesday when he said “special teams is going to be a huge part of this selection process” when the Lions trim to 53 players next week, but it’s no coincidence that Wednesday’s practice seemed to have a little more special teams flair than usual.

The Lions did a four-on-four blocking drill to replicate kick coverage early in practice and I trained my eyes on a couple bubble players for whom special teams play will be especially crucial.

Linebacker Jahlani Tavai had a good rep in the drill, staying in front of Tavante Beckett as he changed direction and even recovering after initially getting knocked off balance. Receiver Tom Kennedy made two good blocks in the drill from a right flank position, one of them on undrafted rookie A.J. Parker, whose roster spot seems secure. Bobby Price, however, could not stay in front of Jason Cabinda on one of the last reps of the drill.

• The Lions ran a second special teams drill Wednesday in an effort to simulate punt coverage. The drill was slanted towards the coverage unit, placing would-be gunners inside of the would-be jammers trying to block them. As soon as I mentioned that to one of my colleagues, Mike Ford impressively flipped the field to get in front of the would-be cover man he was paired with.

Ford excels at just about every special teams drill the Lions do. His value is underappreciated.

• The Lions are going to lose a game or two this fall because of their kicking situation. It just is not very reliable right now. Both Randy Bullock and Zane Gonzalez made a pair of field goals after the Lions’ first team period Wednesday, then Bullock pushed two of three kicks wide left later in practice.

• Campbell put his offense in three got-to-have-it situations near the goal line midway through practice Wednesday, and the offense failed to convert all three throws.

On a goal-to-go situation from the 2-yard, Jared Goff threw a wobbler of an incompletion to Geronimo Allison in the back of the end zone, with Melifonwu face-guarding Allison.

On the next play, from the 6, Goff locked in on Hockenson across the middle. Safety Will Harris read Goff’s eyes perfectly (or perhaps knew Goff was going to his only reliable target) and batted the pass out of the air. Harris should have had an interception on the play.

On the final snap from the 11, Goff threw a fade route to Quintez Cephus against Melifonwu that landed just out of Cephus’ reach, though I thought the receiver could have made a better play on the ball.

• I wrote about the big season Hockenson is in for earlier this week, and he ran a great route to shake double coverage early in practice. I have to imagine most defenses will bracket Hockenson anytime the Lions get near the end zone — and probably most other times, too. The Lions have no one close to as dangerous as him in their receiving corps.

• Campbell said Tuesday he was worried about how ready D’Andre Swift will be for the Lions’ Sept. 12 season opener, comments echoed Wednesday by Staley. Swift has not done a ton in practice to this point, but he made a beautiful jump cut Wednesday that seemed to indicate he’s not too far off.

“When you miss that many practices, yes, you’re always a little concerned because there’s no substitution for football and getting these live reps on the field,” Lynn said. “But Swift, he’s getting himself, working his way back in slowly, increasing his load every practice. Hopefully we can get him and at least if he’s not all the way back, maybe have a role for him (Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers).”

• Like the Lions started and ended camp with a fight, I, too, will come full circle in my observations. Back in July I wrote about how Amon-Ra St. Brown catches 202 passes off the JUGS machines every day after practice. Well, St. Brown and Kalif Raymond stayed after practice every day it was outdoors this summer to catch extra balls, even Tuesday and Wednesday — when temperatures were topping 90 degrees.

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

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