WESTFIELD, IND. — The optimism has been flowing pretty freely for the Detroit Lions this summer, and it makes total sense why.
Dan Campbell is easy to root for, he and Brad Holmes have a clear plan in place to build their roster, and the offense with a very good line and new weapons for Jared Goff to throw to looks like it could be dangerous this fall.
But Day 1 of joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday was a reminder that the Lions are still very much in the early stages of their rebuild, and success won’t be easy to come by once the real games begin.
The Lions and Colts spent about two hours practicing Wednesday at the sprawling Grand Park Sports Campus in suburban Indianapolis and the Colts stood out to me as the clearly superior team.
The teams practiced on adjoining fields, and I spent the majority of the day watching the Lions offense go against the Colts defense — I’ll flip fields tomorrow; it’s impossible to watch everything at once.
But the Colts defense had its way with the Lions offense in seven-on-seven drills, the Colts defensive backs dominated the Lions receivers in one-on-one passing — both drills typically favor the offense — and while the Lions did some good things in the team portion of practice, some of my colleagues who watched the Colts offense go against the Lions defense said it was an even more lopsided on that field.
“I think it started slow specifically in that seven-on-seven period and the one-on-ones, it was not our best,” Goff said. “And then I thought we finished really well. I thought once we got in team and were able to run the ball and play-action and drop back from there, it was actually a pretty good day for us. And I’m sure they’ll come back tomorrow with a little bit of fire and we will, too.”
The Colts are a probable playoff team this season and my pick to win the AFC South, so the fact they looked better on their home practice field isn’t much of a surprise.
They have one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks led by Jonathan Taylor and a stingy veteran defense, while the Lions, coming off a 3-13-1 season, have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL.
Watching Wednesday’s practice affirmed my belief that the Lions offense will have to carry its defense this season, and when the Lions face good defenses they are liable to have some struggles of their own.
None of this is meant to hit the eject button on the season before it begins. We’re still more than three weeks from real games and the strength of this Lions team is the offensive line, which wasn’t on the field for the one-on-one passing or seven-on-seven drills.
Just consider it a friendly reminder that the Lions still have a very slim margin for error, and that there are a lot of talented teams out there feeling pretty good about themselves right now, too.
More observations from Wednesday
• Similar to when the Lions had joint practices with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016, I came away from Wednesday’s practice thinking this is how training camp should be. An estimated 7,000 fans attended practice in what was a pretty lively atmosphere on-site of one of the largest youth sports complexes in the country.
It helped, of course, that there was an opponent in town, but the Colts had an emcee who explained each practice period to the crowd and who interviewed defensive lineman DeForest Buckner on a raised staircase at the start of practice. When Colts owner Jim Irsay arrived, a woman handed out signed $100 bills to a few random fans in attendance as Irsay was carted to a patch of grass between the fields to meet with Indianapolis media.
The Lions do not have near enough space at their Allen Park training facility for a setup like the one at the Grand Park Sports Campus, but Lions brass who attended the practice, including owner Sheila Hamp, have to be thinking about how they can improve their training camp experience.
I do not think going away to Saginaw Valley State again (or a similar destination) is the answer. The Colts’ site thrives, in part, because it’s just outside the city. But the Lions have smart people in their organization and the resources to find partnerships or create solutions that would improve future camps.
• Lions coach Dan Campbell said he did not want this week’s practices to turn into Fight Club, and the Lions and Colts kept the skirmishes to a minimum Wednesday.
Fans caught one minor altercation on video, when Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah came flying in and shoved Colts receiver Michael Pittman as players on both lines exchanged pushes. And Lions jammers Savion Smith and Bobby Price were involved in another minor sideline tussle during punt cover drills, when Colts gunner Tony Brown was tossed into a line of teammates and Smith had to be pulled back to the Lions’ side of the field.
• A few Lions receivers appeared to have a problem with footing at the start of Wednesday’s practice, which probably made the one-on-one passing work look worse than it was. In general, though, Lions pass catchers struggled to get separation from Colts defenders in the period, and when they did, they seemed to be out of sync with Goff.
Goff overthrew DJ Chark on the first play of the period, with Stephon Gilmore in tight coverage, and T.J. Hockenson collided with Nick Cross on the next play before Goff got his first completion to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
St. Brown couldn’t get off a good jam by Colts cornerback Brandon Facyson later in the period, but he did have another catch against Kenny Moore when Moore also was flagged for a penalty on the play.
• Hockenson made the best catch of the period, reaching for a one-handed grab over the middle against Cross. I counted Goff connecting on just one of four throws to his No. 1 tight end in the period.
Devin Funchess, who is fighting for a backup job at tight end, struggled to get separation in what I believe was his only rep with Goff in the period, when Brown blanketed him on a route to the sideline. Funchess appeared to injure his right shoulder during red zone drills near the end of practice, when he caught a short pass in the left flat and lost a fumble as he turned upfield.
Funchess spent several minutes with a Lions trainer on the far sideline. I did not see him return to action.
• Halapoulivaati Vaitai returned to practice Wednesday after leaving early Monday with what Dan Campbell called back spasms. Vaitai took his usual spot at right guard with the first-team offense.
Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike and offensive lineman Kevin Jarvis did not participate Wednesday, and the Lions did not travel injured players Ifeatu Melifonwu, Julian Okwara, Romeo Okwara or Jason Cabinda to Indianapolis.
Rookie Jameson Williams did travel with the team this week and was doing usual Wednesday, carrying a football wherever he went.
• Goff went 0 for 4 during one segment of the first seven-on-seven period Wednesday, though he was better than that stat line would indicate. Jamaal Williams dropped Goff’s first pass of the segment, and an official ruled St. Brown out of bounds on a catch he made on Goff’s second throw.
After overthrowing Chark on the next play, Goff nearly threw an interception to Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke, on a pass intended for Josh Reynolds, before giving way to Tim Boyle. Boyle proceeded to connect on three of his four throws, though all three completions were check-downs.
• In one-on-one pass rush drills, Frank Ragnow showed why he is one of the best centers in the game. Ragnow barely gave an inch on Grover Stewart’s first attempt at a bull rush, though Stewart got penetration on his second rep.
The Lions’ first-team offensive line played the Colts’ top pass-rushing group to a draw during one-on-ones. Ben Banogu beat Taylor Decker and Buckner breezed past Jonah Jackson on consecutive plays their second time through the rotation, while Penei Sewell had two good reps against former Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye.
• Drops were a bit of an issue for the Lions on Wednesday. Besides Williams, Reynolds dropped a would-be touchdown during red zone work and Jermar Jefferson dropped a Boyle pass that was thrown slightly behind him later in the same period.
St. Brown had a nice touchdown catch from Goff on a second-and-goal play from about the 8 in red zone period, and D’Andre Swift scored one play later on an easy scamper around left end. Zaire Franklin did stop Swift for a short loss on a first-and-10 play from the 11.
Swift also had a nice run in the first team period of the day, when Hockenson made a nice pulling block on Moore, who responded by whipping Hockenson into a cameraman on the sideline.
• Thursday’s observations will focus mostly on the Lions’ defense, where I will be looking specifically to see if Okudah can bounce back from what those watching the No. 1 field Wednesday said was a rough day, and to see how Alim McNeill does against a good Colts interior offensive line.