Niyo: Aidan Hutchinson, Lions fans get kick out of preseason debut

Detroit News

Detroit — His work was already done Friday night, but late in the first half of the Lions’ preseason opener, Aidan Hutchinson found himself in the spotlight again.

That’s because they were playing his song inside Ford Field, blasting Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as an homage to Hutchinson’s show-stopping performance in the debut of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” earlier in the week. His acapella rendition of that hit brought down the house — and had his teammates on their feet belting out the chorus — during his rookie initiation in training camp, and it’s likely now a fixture in the Lions’ gameday playlist at the stadium.

“I’m sure that song will stick with me for the rest of my life,” Hutchinson said, laughing, in a postgame media session. “And I’m fully prepared for that.”

No surprise there. A few months into his NFL career, it’s becoming clear Hutchinson, the homegrown star and No. 2 overall draft pick, is fully prepared for all of this.

The attention. The expectations. The pressure?

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“I don’t know if I’d call it pressure,” Hutchinson shrugged, when asked about the fuss — and the fanfare — that apparently comes with the territory. “I mean, it’s weird: I haven’t even played a regular-season snap yet, and you look out in that crowd and you see so many 97s. But that’s very inspiring for me. It’s a really cool feeling looking up there and seeing all those jerseys, especially with my hometown team.”

That explained why, after time had expired on the Lions’ 27-23 loss to Atlanta on Friday — and after Hutchinson had made the rounds for postgame handshakes, including a brief reunion with former Michigan teammate Jalen Mayfield — he made a beeline for the sideline behind the Lions’ bench. Hutchinson set his helmet down on the turf and then began signing some of those No. 97 jerseys — a few in maize and blue, but most in Honolulu blue and silver — for fans who’d lined up along the railing. He spent a few minutes signing autographs before finally heading up the tunnel to join his teammates in the dressing room.

As exhibitions go, this one did have a different energy. The attendance was announced at 40,521, “and for just being a preseason game, I thought they were pretty loud,” Hutchinson said.

The rookie was part of the reason, too.

After Jared Goff and the Lions’ first-string offense got the night started right with an impressive touchdown drive, Hutchinson took center stage.

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He recorded a chase-down tackle on his first play from scrimmage, though it came on a 7-yard run by Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, who took advantage of some poor pass-rush containment — a recurring theme for the Lions’ defense Friday.

But the rookie quickly made amends on the next play, flipping over to right end and executing a perfect swim move that sent one of the league’s best left tackles — ninth-year pro Jake Matthews — flailing to the turf. Hutchinson then corralled running back Qadree Ollison in the backfield for a 2-yard loss. He punctuated that play with a celebration that mimicked Michael Jackson’s famous leg-kick dance move. And when asked later if that might be his new sack dance, he laughed.

“Just a temporary thing,” he said. “With the heat of the news right now, you like to keep up with it. I’m just glad I remembered to do it, to be honest with you.”

Hutchinson shifted inside on third-and-5 — he lined up in three different spots in his first three plays Friday — and was effectively double-teamed off the snap as Atlanta converted to extend the drive. Hutchinson faced another double team on the next play, lining up at left end and drawing a holding penalty on right guard Chris Lindstrom.

In all, he played a dozen snaps on the Falcons’ opening drive, including a few plays nullified by penalties. It was hardly a defensive showcase for the Lions’ No. 1 unit, particularly the front seven. Mariota broke containment three times, including a scrambling 6-yard touchdown run to the pylon after Hutchinson had come crashing into the backfield to flush the quarterback.

“Gotta have those good rush lanes — it’s always a factor with those mobile quarterbacks,” Hutchinson said. “So I’m sure that’ll be a point of emphasis in these next couple weeks and then we’ll get it cleaned up for Philly.”

Dan Campbell said as much Friday night. Still, when asked to assess Hutchinson’s play, the Lions head coach said, “I thought he did some good things.”

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And as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, he looks more than capable of doing some big things, even as a rookie.

“I mean, I’m not even close to my ceiling right now,” said Hutchinson, who actually celebrated his 22nd birthday Tuesday with his family at a Ford promotional event that doubled as a “Hard Knocks” watch party at Ford Field. “I feel like I’ve got so much more to go. And I can just see it every day with myself in practice. I’m learning so much, figuring things out as I go and taking a lot of strides.”

His teammates and coaches have talked about that the last two weeks in camp.

“His daily preparation — it’s really high level for a young guy,” Goff said.

That goes for the “Billie Jean” performance, too.

“Best I’ve ever seen — not even close,” Goff added. “I think it just speaks to his confidence. He’s a confident kid. He’s a charismatic kid. He works extremely hard. And we all respect him for that. I think he’ll grow into a leader sooner than later.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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