WESTFIELD, IND. — Rodney McLeod has been one of the better safeties in the NFL for going on a decade.
He played his first four seasons with the then-St. Louis Rams, when Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes helped sign him as an undrafted free agent, and he spent the past six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he faced Lions quarterback Jared Goff three times, including last fall.
As the Indianapolis Colts’ most veteran defensive back, I figured it would be good to get some insight from McLeod on what he saw from Goff and the Lions’ new-look offense the past two days, and the safety said he came away impressed.
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“I think it’s a very good unit,” McLeod told me after the second and final Lions-Colts joint practice Thursday at the Grand Park Sports Campus. “Tough. That’s one thing that stands out to me and clearly that’s the identity they’re trying to establish there and I think they demonstrated that over the two days.
“Very up-tempo. And they run a lot of jets and motions, I think, to obviously focus on your eyes and are you disciplined enough to know your assignment and understand your technique? And so had fun. They’re a competitive group. I think they’re going to be good and I think we all got better because to these past two practices.”
After spending Wednesday’s practicing watching Goff and the Lions offense go against McLeod and the Colts defense, I spent most of Thursday on the other field watching the Lions defense battle the Colts offense.
I don’t have many first-hand takeaways from how Goff and the offense played Thursday, but McLeod’s scouting report jives with what we’ve seen from the unit — which, despite a strong showing from the defense Thursday, I still suspect will have to carry the team this fall — all summer.
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The Lions are determined to play at a faster pace this season, and new offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has added some eye candy to his offense, which will rely heavily on the running game and play-action pass and which should challenge defenses with its tight receiver splits.
“You get the run game going, that’s a hard day for the defense,” McLeod said. “And I think they want to establish the run. They have two good running backs there, (D’Andre) Swift and (Jamaal) Williams, and then they obviously are able to now open up the play-action pass off it. That’s what I see them being, a run-style (offense) but then obviously with play-action pass style. Goff’s history, that’s what he likes. Play-action pass and boots, so I saw a lot of that today.”
I asked McLeod to compare the Goff he saw this week to the quarterback he played against in the past. He used an interesting word to describe the Lions QB: “Growth.”
“Timing throws, on-time throws,” McLeod said. “He’s putting the ball in a great spot. He’s looked good these past few days.”
Goff looking good while wearing a red no-contact jersey for two days in August is entirely different than him playing that way for 17 weeks. But taking McLeod’s assessment at face value, it should be reassuring to those worried there’s a ceiling on how good the Lions can be because of their quarterback play.
More observations from Thursday
• Dan Campbell came away more impressed with his team’s play Wednesday than I was, and when Campbell goes back to watch film of Thursday’s practice I think he’ll like what he sees from his defense.
The Lions kept the Colts out of the end zone on all 12 red zone snaps (six by the first-team offense and six by the second team) and did not allow a first down in either of the two-minute situations they ended practice with Thursday.
A couple caveats apply, the Colts torched the Lions in red zone work Wednesday (“It was like a layup drill,” one observer told me) by throwing to their big receivers. On Thursday, Matt Ryan attempted two short passes in six red zone snaps and Indy ran on its four other plays inside the 10-yard line. And in the two-minute drill, Colts coach Frank Reich declined a pass interference penalty on Amani Oruwariye on a third-and-3ish that would have kept the drive alive because he told reporters he wanted his first-team offense to face a fourth-down situation.
Still, give the Lions credit for getting big stops in both periods, and contributions from an assortment of players. AJ Parker broke up Ryan’s fourth-and-3ish pass to Michael Pittman to get the ones off the field, Juju Hughes made a fourth down tackle on a pass to De’Michael Harris with the second-team defense, and in red zone period the Lions got two stops from the 1.
Hughes and Jarrad Davis appeared to lead the charge on one run stop, and Aidan Hutchinson recovered a fumble on the other third-and-goal from the 1 play on a muffed quarterback-running back exchange.
• It would be an upset at this point, I think, if Malcolm Rodriguez does not start Week 1. Rodriguez had a tackle-for-loss on a first-and-goal play from the 6, when he shot like a lightning bolt through the line.
Rodriguez will endure a few growing pains. He got caught in a scrum of blockers on a bubble screen in team drills Thursday, but he already looks like the best playmaker in the Lions’ linebacking corps.
• John Cominsky had a third-and-goal sack in red zone drills with the No. 2 defense. I wrote about Cominsky earlier in camp, and he keeps making plays. The Lions are going to have a difficult decision to make come cut day, but the injuries to Levi Onwuzurike and Josh Paschal could leave enough room for both Cominsky and undrafted rookie Demetrius Taylor to make the team.
• The Lions have some big cornerbacks. Oruwariye is 6 feet 2, Bobby Price is 6-3 and Jeff Okudah is 6-1. But the Colts have an enormous group of pass catchers led by Pittman (6-4) and Alex Piece (6-3) and tight ends Mo Alie-Cox (6-5, 267 pounds) and Jelani Woods (6-7, 253).
One of the funnier moments of practice Thursday, Woods beat Hughes for a pass over the middle and as Kerby Joseph jumped on Woods’ back as he rumbled down the sideline, a lady in a Colts shirt in the front row of the bleachers remarked, “Look at how little he is.”
Woods is mountainous, to the point it looked like one of those oversized kids in peewee football dragging his opponent along for a ride.
• Ryan and the Colts did put their size advantage to work in seven-on-seven red zone drills Thursday. One-on-one pass rush was going on at the same time on a different part of the field, so I did not watch the entire period. But I saw Ryan throw consecutive touchdowns to Alie-Cox (who towered over Parker on the play) and Pittman (against Oruwariye), then find Nyheim Hines for a score when Oruwariye and DeShon Elliott had trouble with a bunch formation.
• In one-on-one pass rush, Charles Harris used a nice jump hesitation to beat Ryan Van Demark for an easy sack, Hutchinson had an easy win against Jordan Murray, and Alim McNeill overpowered Ryan Kelly on their final rep. Kelly ran McNeill wide of the spot in their first meeting, and Braden Smith (against Hutchinson) and Danny Pinter (against Jashon Cornell) had good reps for the Colts.
Hutchinson celebrated one play Thursday with some sort of hybrid breakdance type spin. He said didn’t even realize what he was doing on the celebration, but after singing “Billie Jean” on “Hard Knocks” and breaking out a Michael Jackson-style dance move in the Lions’ preseason opener, he clearly has musical-themed celebrations on his mind.
• Austin Bryant has had as impressive a camp as anyone on the Lions defense. Bryant, coming off a 4.5-sack season, has been supremely disruptive all summer and his time in Indy was no different.
I was told he had a great day of practice Wednesday, and he made several impact plays Thursday. Bryant had a would-be sack on Nick Foles in the first team period of the day and hit Foles (on accident, he said) during a second team period when he forced an incompletion.
With Hutchinson and Charles Harris at the starting defensive end spots and Bryant coming off the bench, the Lions have the makings of a formidable edge pass rush.
• One player who seems a little more on the roster bubble after joint practices than maybe I had realized is guard Logan Stenberg. He struggled with his blocking Wednesday and I was told he gave up a sack Thursday. Tommy Kraemer seems to have the edge in the battle for the third guard spot. It also should be noted that Kraemer has played a handful of snaps at center this summer, and backup center Evan Brown has taken a handful of snaps at guard (he took one in one-on-one reps Wednesday, at least).
• Devin Funchess did not practice Thursday after Campbell said he suffered a stinger late in Wednesday’s practice, and C.J. Moore got the day off, too.
• Finally, in the kicking battle, but Austin Seibert and Riley Patterson went 4 for 5 in live field goal, with Seibert missing from 43 yards (and making from 33, 38, 47 and 50 yards), and Patterson missing from 38.
• The Lions have their final three training camp practices of the summer next week. No fans are allowed, but I should have three more sets of observations coming your way.