Lions joint practice observations: Offense, defensive backs struggle; D-line shines

Detroit News

Westfield, Ind. — Here are some notes and observations from Wednesday’s joint training camp practice between the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts.

► After warm-ups, the teams split between two fields, conducting a series of one-on-one drills before moving to full-team work. It proved to be tough sledding for a couple of Detroit’s recent first-round picks, tight end T.J. Hockenson and cornerback Jeff Okudah.

Hockenson struggled with the physicality of the Colts defenders on his first four reps, failing to record a reception on those snaps. He managed to reverse his fortunes with a final rep, fighting through safety Nick Cross’ jam to make a difficult one-handed catch across the middle.

Okudah, in what would be indicative of his day, got beat repeatedly, including giving up significant separation for an easy deep ball catch for big-bodied rookie Alec Pierce.

► If the Lions were looking for reassurance Okudah was going to start turning a corner, they didn’t get it on Wednesday.

Okudah had the roughest day amongst a cornerback group that got beat early and often. He made just one pass breakup and was burned for a handful of touchdowns and big gains. And it wasn’t just that he was getting beat — that happened to Amani Oruwariye plenty, as well, which we’ll get to in a second — but rather there was a concerning trend of Colts receivers easily getting separation and turning medium gains into long gains.

Okudah got beat badly by the aforementioned Pierce route down the sideline and again on a dig route across the middle. He also allowed Michael Pittman to rip off big yardage and fourth-year Colts receiver Ashton Dulin to catch a fade pass for a touchdown during the lone red-zone target to Okudah’s assignment. He was simply a step behind all day.

► It wasn’t just Okudah struggling in the secondary. Detroit’s other top cornerbacks had a poor day as well. Oruwariye got beat repeatedly, although a lot of those were thanks to the Colts completing tough catches against tight coverage.

During 11-on-11 work, Will Harris jumped in for Okudah after he got beat by Pittman over the middle, only for Harris to immediately get beat for a 15-yard gain by Mike Strachan, a second-year receiver with just two career catches.

But the worst sequence for Detroit’s secondary, hands down, was in the red zone. In four plays, the Colts’ first-team offense scored three touchdowns; two over the head of Oruwariye and the other beating Okudah.

► The poor performance from Detroit’s cornerbacks landed corner Mike Hughes, a player with just 12 starts over four NFL seasons, some first-team reps near the end of practice. Chase Lucas, who nearly came up with a game-sealing interception in Week 1 of preseason, also made two pass breakups, including an early jump ball to Parris Campbell in the end zone.

► Here’s the good news for the defense: Against one of the league’s best offensive lines, Detroit’s first-team defensive linemen more than held their own.

Rookie Aidan Hutchinson picked up right where he left off in last Friday’s preseason game. He was stuffing runs (he stopped a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage to start both full-team segments), was finding success in one-on-ones, and even forced Colts quarterback Matt Ryan to throw the ball away in what was the only red-zone chance that Indianapolis’ first-team offense didn’t score.

Second-year nose tackle Alim McNeill went a perfect 5-0 in one-on-one battles and defensive end Charles Harris was dominant as well.

Among the depth pieces for Detroit’s defensive line, John Cominsky had a sack from the interior, Austin Bryant and Derrick Barnes teamed up for another, Eric Banks had a tackle-for-loss, and Demetrius Taylor just seemed to consistently be in and around the mix while winning a majority of the one-on-one reps that we viewed.

► Amon-Ra St. Brown’s momentum can’t be slowed. He lost one rep, when cornerback Brandon Facyson jammed Detroit’s second-year receiver off his route, but St. Brown was otherwise uncoverable in the drill, getting the best of Colts starter Kenny Moore II on three occasions.

► Footing was a bit of an issue throughout the day, with several Lions players losing their balance when attempting to make cuts. One such stumble resulted in one of the more impressive moments of practice, when receiver DJ Chark was able to sit up and make a catch from his backside while working against former All-Pro Stephon Gilmore.

► No one got more consistent separation among Detroit’s wideouts than Kalif Raymond, but the production didn’t match the route running since the team’s quarterbacks continually misfired on their throws to the speedy deep threat.

► In addition to the usual cast of characters who have been sidelined by injury, rookie offensive guard Kevin Jarvis and wide receiver Quintez Cephus sat out this session.

Additionally, tight end Devin Funchess, who had been on a roll starting with the preseason opener, suffered what appeared to be a right shoulder injury, which contributed to the veteran losing a fumble during a red-zone period.

► Funchess wasn’t the only Lions player to lose a fumble. Running back Craig Reynolds also coughed the ball up after a big hit from Colts linebacker E.J. Speed.

► Detroit’s starting offensive line more than held its own against the Colts’ starting defensive line in one-on-one work, although defensive tackle DeForest Buckner blew past guard Jonah Jackson on one of their two head-to-head reps to prevent a shutout.

The Lions’ backup linemen didn’t fair nearly as well. It was a particularly rough showing for third-year guard Logan Stenberg, who saw a large share of chances but only managed to slow or stop his assignment around half the time.

One player from that backup group who seems to be settling down after a rocky start to his brief time in Detroit is offensive tackle Kendall Lamm, who joined the team in the middle of camp. After knocking off the rust, he’s starting to display a nice combination of movement skills and physicality.

► For the most part, the emotions remained in check. Hockenson and Moore got in a tussle that resulted in the pair going to the ground on top of a “Hard Knocks” cameraman.

Additionally, Okudah threw a short-armed jab in the direction of Pittman, while the largest scrum occurred during a punt coverage drill involving Lions defensive backs Saivion Smith, Bobby Price and Tracy Walker getting into it with Colts cornerback Tony Brown. That led to dozens of players spilling off the sideline to break things up, including Lions running back Jamaal Williams, who physically dragged Smith away from the altercation.

► Memorable plays are a big deal for players on the bubble during this stage of camp, and veteran linebacker Jarrad Davis made his mark twice on Wednesday. Davis intercepted Ryan early in seven-on-seven reps and shot through the middle for a sack later in the day.

► Rookie safety Kerby Joseph came just shy of intercepting Nick Foles during 11-on-11, but he came back the very next play and picked one off to close the session. To be fair, the ball was thrown right at Joseph, but it’s encouraging to see a young player bounce back and make a play.

► In a red-zone period, the Colts defense smothered the Lions’ first-team offense early on, but Jared Goff and company settled down for back-to-back scores with the quarterback connecting on a dart to St. Brown near the pylon at the front right corner of the end zone, followed up by running back D’Andre Swift getting around the left edge untouched for a 10-yard score. The top unit nearly made it three TDs in a row, but Josh Reynolds dropped a pass in the end zone.

► A day after getting some love in the second episode of “Hard Knocks,” linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez continued to trend in an upward direction. He was with the first-teamers to start every drill and got off to a hot start when he made a diving pass breakup against D’vonte Price during one-on-ones.

Later, Rodriguez tossed Colts offensive lineman Will Fries (6-foot-6, 309 pounds) like a parent throws their child in a swimming pool. He didn’t have the same success while trying to use the same move on perennial All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson later on, but there’s always tomorrow.

► Colts owner Jim Irsay spoke with the team’s local media in the middle of the practice. As he made his way to the interview setup, being chauffeured in a golf cart, he had staffers handing out autographed $100 bills to fans in attendance.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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