Camp observations: DJ Chark shines in Ford Field scrimmage

Pride of Detroit

The Detroit Lions held their tenth practice of 2022 training camp on Saturday, and as has become a tradition, the team shifted festivities from Allen Park to Detroit and the friendly confines of Ford Field.

Despite only winning three games in 2021, Lions fans are full of excitement and an estimated 18,000 showed up in attendance for Family Fest. Per the team, that is the largest number of fans to attend the event since 2015, when the Lions were coming off an 11-win season that included a trip to the playoffs.

“Listen, it’s exciting,” coach Dan Campbell said about the fan turnout. “It really is. I know they were talking about there were a lot of RSVPs (for tickets). I knew we’re going to have a pretty good turnout. It’s exciting. We want to give these fans something to be proud of. It’s been long enough. We got to hang in there and model this thing after what our city is about.”

In case you missed an of our previous observations:

Attendance/Injury updates

One of the most notable things during Saturday’s scrimmage was the absence of corner Jeff Okudah. Recovering from Achilles surgery this past offseason, Okudah had worked hard to regain his health and quickly found himself back in the mix for a starting role.

On Friday, Okudah was not participating in the majority of practice, which wasn’t overly unusual as many veterans rested with the scrimmage on the docket. But on Saturday, not only was he not participating, but Okudah was completely absent from the event itself. It’s too early to jump to assumptions on why he missed the scrimmage, but that will surely be one of the first questions Campbell gets asked about on Monday.

Also sitting out due to injury were Julian Okwara, Levi Onwuzurike, Quintez Cephus, and Ryan McCollum. Additionally, reserve offensive lineman Zein Obeid was unaccounted for, with no reason being given as to why.

There were no changes to the PUP or NFI lists, and C.J. Moore—who was just removed from the NFI a few days ago—was still being held out of team drills and was only participating on individuals and special teams.

Dan Campbell stirs up the crowd

Before the event kicked off, as has become custom, Campbell gave another pre-scrimmage speech to the crowd:

This team is working their rear off to give you something to be proud of. They’re grinding it out right now and I know this, we are fricking starving. We are starving! So the hyenas better get out of the way.

Setting the table for the scrimmage

The basic layout of the scrimmage would begin in a similar fashion to training camp in Allen Park, with a walkthrough, stretching, followed by some light individual drills, and then the bulk of the practice would be heavily focused on team drills, with some special teams drills mixed in.

Campbell told the media ahead of practice that the team drills would be “unscripted”, meaning it’s up to the coordinator to adjust to the situation on the field and make the proper play call, similarly to what they would be expected to do in a regular season game.

Both coordinators were on the sidelines for today’s scrimmage, and Campbell told the media that both offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn plan to do the same on game days.

DJ Chark shines under the bright lights of Ford Field

Last season, Jared Goff had established solid chemistry with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Josh Reynolds, and for the most part, they picked up where they left off—if not improved—when training camp started. So it’s probably not surprising that one of the most popular questions asked amongst Lions fans is: How’s Goff’s chemistry with DJ Chark?

Well, if the last three practices are any indication, they’re already in mid-season form.

After Goff connected with Chark on highlight reel receptions in back-to-back practices, the duo saved their best performance for Saturday, connecting on three above-average plays, including two very difficult catches where Chark laid out for the grab and two touchdowns. The Lions posted all three receptions on their Instagram page:

The first reception down the sidelines happened on just the fourth team play of the day, and likely would’ve been the best catch of the day, had he not topped it with his 33-yard diving reception for a touchdown to close out practice.

“It went pretty smooth,” Chark said to the media about his performance during the scrimmage. “We practice a lot of these things, talk about a lot of these things. A lot of it showed up today. (Goff) took some chances on me, on Saint (St. Brown), with the deep ball. It’s our job to continue to help him feel comfortable. We’re starting to get a rhythm.”

Starting to get a rhythm.

If this is Goff and Chark “starting to get a rhythm”, things could get real exciting once they find it.

More offensive notes

Chark was, of course, one of Jeremy Reisman’s top six standouts from the scrimmage, but he also acknowledged Goff’s performance as well, smartly pointing out:

There is something to be said about Goff’s confidence, particularly as it relates to pushing the ball downfield. He has more trust in himself and more trust in his teammates than I saw at any point last season.

St. Brown and Reynolds also caught touchdown passes from Goff on Saturday, in case you were concerned Chark had absorbed all of Goff’s available chemistry.

The reserve quarterbacks were a mixed bag of results, as has become more and more typical. In David Blough’s first series, he threw a quick out to Shayne Zylstra for minimal gain, had his next pass broken up by A.J. Parker, converted a bubble screen to Tom Kennedy, overthrew Garrett Griffin and was intercepted by DeShon Elliott, then hit Kennedy on a bomb for a touchdown. On his next throwing attempt, he was sacked by Austin Bryant, his first of two on the day.

Tim Boyle also found Kennedy on a nice touch pass for a touchdown but he also had another pass (or two) tipped at the line of scrimmage—which seems to be a regular thing.

D’Andre Swift’s physical gifts looked improved with his new physique and as long as the health management plan they have him on keeps him healthy, he could be a big factor this season. He remains an incredibly difficult player to cover out of the backfield.

Jermar Jefferson’s day started off slow. He was stuffed by Charles Harris and Eric Banks early, but by his seventh carry, he started to pick up chunks of yardage, including scoring a touchdown after an impressive block by Devin Funchess.

For the seven people who track this stuff like me, after spending most of camp flipped, Logan Stenberg was back at left guard (a spot he has played for years) and Tommy Kraemer was on the right on Saturday.

Malcolm Rodriguez’s rise up the depth chart is sticking

After working with the first and second teams for the first time on Friday, Rodriguez followed that practice up with more work with the top unit on Saturday. During walkthroughs, Rodriguez once again took second team reps at the MIKE backing up Alex Anzalone and working next to Derrick Barnes or Shaun Dion Hamilton.

When live drills began, the team opened up with special teams, and Rodriguez was also working with the first team in kick coverage. In fact, on the very first play of practice, Rodriguez was one of, if not the first player down the field and was in the perfect spot for the tackle.

During team drills, Rodriguez found himself working with the reserves, alternating between the second and third teams. But when the Lions shifted to a subpackage look that featured with just one linebacker, Rodriguez stepped into the role with the first team. In the above Chark video, you can see Rodriguez just miss a pass breakup at the front of the endzone on Chark’s first touchdown.

Previously, the Lions have tried Chris Board and Anthony Pittman in the single linebacker role, but Rodriguez has the quickness, coverage skills, and upside that might make him the best-suited player for the role. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see this be his first step towards contributing in the regular season.

More defensive notes

As noted in the paragraph about Blough, Austin Bryant once again showed up with another sack on Saturday. He continues to string together impactful plays. But Bryant wasn’t the only defensive lineman to make some noise, Eric Banks was very disruptive when working against the first team, notching a sack and drawing a holding call on Penei Sewell.

Aidan Hutchinson had a terrific play that truly illustrated his athleticism. On the play, the offense tried to leak a screen out to his side, and despite aggressively attacking the offensive line, he was able to redirect his body’s momentum and track down Craig Reynolds.

The Okudah-Harris battle remains an interesting battle, but one trait Harris holds over Okudah is his physical play against the run. On Saturday, Harris recognized a Craig Reynolds sweep right and drove on the ball carrier fast, laying a big hit for minimal gain.

Special Teams

The Lions typically limit special teams to a singular purpose during each practice, but during Saturday’s scrimmage, they focused on all aspects of special teams.

The most obvious special teams battle is at kicker, where Austin Seibert is looking to bounce back from last season’s trip to injured reserve, and Riley Patterson is working to convince coaches he should keep the job he finished the season doing.

On the day, the pair alternated field goal attempts during team drills, attempting kicks from approximately 41, 41, 44, 50, 54, and 62 yards. Seibert was perfect on all of his attempts, managing to squeak in the 62-yarder off the crossbar and through the uprights.

While Patterson’s kicks have been consistently down the middle, the attempts from 54 and 62-yards proved to be too much for the second-year player. And that seems to be the difference between the pair. Patterson may be slightly more accurate, but there is a noticeable cap on his distance, while Seibert has the more powerful leg.

Seibert’s leg strength also showed up on kickoffs. Last year he handled kickoff duties, but after he was injured, the team passed those duties onto punter Jack Fox instead of Patterson. That might not seem overly important, but it’s all part of the evaluation process for the job.

“For me, it would be level of talent,” special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said about the kicker competition. “Do they have enough talent? Can they do the things we need them to do effectively from a kickoff standpoint and a field goal standpoint? Are they going to be consistent enough? Maybe upside factors into it at some point, but I wouldn’t say a lot.”

The Lions don’t live tackle during scrimmages, therefore in kick and punt coverage drills, we have to make our best guesses on who was in the right position to make a play. Here’s a list of the players deemed to have made a “tackle” during these drills: Malcolm Rodriguez, Chris Board, Anthony Pittman, Mike Hughes, Brady Breeze, Saivion Smith, Craig Reynolds, and Justin Jackson.

The rest of the roles remained the same as we have seen recently in camp. Godwin Igwebuike, Trinity Benson, Kalil Pimpleton, and Maurice Alexander returned kicks. Kalif Raymond, Pimpleton, Alexander, and St. Brown returned punts. C.J. Moore was the first team personnel protector and was backed up by Tracy Walker. While at gunner Bobby Price, Mark Gilbert, Hughes, and Benson stood out.

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