Niyo: The Chase is on in Lions’ camp, but time is short

Detroit News

Allen Park — The days are numbered, and now the numbers will start dwindling.

That’s the reality of life in an NFL training camp, where the first handful of roster cuts was due by 4 p.m. Tuesday. And for the Lions’ players, that’s a fact that starts to carry more weight as they pack their bags and head to Indianapolis this week for joint practices with the Colts and another preseason audition Saturday.

Every practice rep or game snap seems to matter just a little more. Every big play feels a bit bigger. And every near-miss cuts a little deeper.

Chase Lucas will be the first to tell you that, mostly because he’s living it right now. Re-living it, actually, though he was happy to do so Monday as the Lions hit the practice field for the first time following Friday night’s exhibition loss to Atlanta at Ford Field.

That game had left a bitter taste in the rookie cornerback’s mouth, as Lucas made a couple of nice plays in zone coverage on the Falcons’ final 2-minute drive but wasn’t able to hang onto a potential game-clinching interception. Lucas jumped a route by rookie wideout Tyshaun James and had visions of a pick-six dancing in his head. But as Desmond Ridder’s pass attempt bounced off his chest, a dismayed Lucas fell to the turf and put both hands on his helmet before teammate Saivion Smith helped him to his feet.

“It was a good play, an OK play,” Lucas said. “But it could’ve been a great play.”

And even after responding with another good effort on the ensuing third-down play —stopping Feleipe Franks well short of the sticks and forcing what would’ve been a game-tying field-goal attempt in a regular-season game — Lucas found little consolation in that. Because the Falcons went for it on fourth down and got the go-ahead score on Ridder’s 21-yard touchdown pass.

“I know he was sick to his stomach he didn’t catch that pick — that would’ve sealed it,” head coach Dan Campbell said. “But yet, he did everything that he was supposed to do to that point. He did a great job with the disguise. They got the quarterback to kind of bite on it and threw it to him. So we were in position — we just gotta finish it.”

Lucas said he wasn’t finished watching the replay immediately after he came off the field, either.

“Man, I’ve watched it every single day,” Lucas admitted Monday. “My best friends called me on my phone, like, ‘Man, you’re dropping money on the ground!’ … I ain’t gonna lie to you: After that game, I was beating myself up bad. People just kept coming to me (saying), ‘Man, you made two great plays back-to-back.’ But I’m a perfectionist, (and) the kind of competitor that I am, it’s gonna keep beating me up until I get my first pick in the NFL.”

Making it up

Monday’s won’t count, obviously. But it did make for a nice redemptive moment when Lucas found himself backpedaling in coverage, tracking a deep ball from David Blough intended for Kalif Raymond in the end zone. Lucas went up, high-pointed the ball and cradled it as he hit the ground, securing a win for the defense on what turned out to be the final play of practice. It was a personal victory as well.

“Definitely,” he said, smiling. “I had to make up for Friday, man.”

And though he considered for a moment trying to return the interception — “I really wanted to just run it out,” Lucas said — he quickly thought better of it after realizing the game situation. Fellow cornerback Will Harris made sure of it, too: “It was more like, ‘Man, you’re gonna get on this knee, regardless.’ It wasn’t my option.”

Maybe not, but it was another opportunity to show this coaching staff — and general manager Brad Holmes — they made the right call at the end of April when the Lions used their seventh-round pick on one of the oldest prospects in this year’s draft.

Lucas, who turned 25 in March, spent six years at Arizona State, starting with a redshirt freshman season in 2016 and ending with an extra COVID year last fall. A former high school running back, he grew into a vocal leader for the Sun Devils’ defense as a five-year starter. And the fact he was coached by a staff that included NFL veterans Herm Edwards, Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce certainly doesn’t hurt as he makes this transition to the pros now.

“It’s really fast-paced,” Lucas said. “You got two weeks to learn the whole playbook and then you gotta go out there and perform to the best of your ability. So it’s different than college, but I like it. There’s more of an expectation, people hold you to a higher standard. You’re a professional at this point. So there is no (holding) your hand. You’re kind of out there in the fire.”

Making his case

Of course, you’re in it until you’re not in this league. And a week from now, another handful of players will be told they’re not here in Detroit. Then, after the final preseason game against Pittsburgh, the Lions will need to pare down to a final 53-man roster.

Teams can keep up 16 players on a practice squad again this season, and Campbell might’ve foreshadowed things a bit Monday when he talked about how Lucas “needs to be in the program a little bit” to add “more bulk and strength to him.” Even if he’s a 53-man casualty at the end of the month, as the Lions sort through a crowded but unsettled secondary, there’s probably still an immediate future here for him.

Lucas is listed at 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds, but his short-area quickness and agility allow him to make the kind of plays he made in Friday’s preseason debut. His position flexibility — working mostly in the slot but also on the outside and even some at safety — helps his case, too. And Lucas made a quick first impression on Campbell and others with some of his special-teams reps early in camp.

“He’s got something about him,” Campbell added. “There is something, because he gets things in a hurry, and he’s highly competitive.”

If that wasn’t already apparent through the spring and summer — “Oh, man, he’s got it,” laughed AJ Parker, the presumptive starter at nickel corner for now — it should be by now. His teammates razz the rookie for being older than two-thirds of the Lions’ camp roster, but for Lucas that only ratchets up the impatience he feels. Especially when the snaps are limited.

“I’m up there every day in the office, like, ‘Hey, Coach, what’s the gameplan?’” said Lucas, who only was in for seven plays on defense — and half-dozen more on special teams — Friday against the Falcons. “I think that (the coaches) are happy with me and excited for what I can bring to the table. But I know I just tell ’em every time, ‘I’m only gonna mess up once. After you tell me that first time, I’m not gonna forget it.’”

Monday, then, was just another friendly reminder.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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