Westfield, Ind. — Even before the Detroit Lions took the field for a second day of joint practices against the Indianapolis Colts — in what would turn out to be a decidedly better showing for the Lions — coach Dan Campbell had drawn plenty of encouragement from the first session.
More than any of the team’s preseason games, these practices, against a playoff-caliber opponent with Super Bowl aspirations, serve as a barometer for how far Detroit’s roster has come and how prepared they are to compete against the league’s better teams.
And even though Detroit’s offense and defense struggled through some inconsistencies the previous day, Campbell sees a roster on the brink of turning the corner after going 3-13-1 his first season with the franchise.
“I think you want to know you don’t look out of place and I didn’t feel that way,” Campbell said. “…I think ultimately that’s what you want to know is like, man, is this something where we feel like we’re outmatched and I didn’t feel that way.
Campbell was particularly pleased with the performance of the offense during full-team work, negating some of the struggles from seven-on-seven periods.
“When the O-line came over, we were different,” Campbell said. “I loved it, it was good. It was good to see those guys go eat in the middle.”
Campbell praised the cohesion of the blocking, executing combination blocks in the run game and giving quarterback Jared Goff the necessary protection to progress through his reads and make unencumbered throws. Campbell also noted the play-action pass execution was as good as he’s seen in a while.
Where Campbell sought improvement Thursday was how his secondary handled the Colts’ big-bodied receivers after struggling a day earlier.
“They’ve got some towers,” Campbell said. “They’re pretty crafty, pretty smooth and I want to see us compete a little bit more, or be in the fight at the catch point with some of these receivers.”
That group responded accordingly Thursday, helping contribute to a defense that didn’t allow a single touchdown in a full-team, red zone segment of the practice.
Bryant keeps cool, stays hot
After a couple of minor skirmishes Wednesday, there were no such extracurricular issues during Thursday’s practice, despite several Lions players anticipating the emotion and intensity ratcheting up heading into the second day.
Campbell continually emphasized the need for self-control to his roster, reminding them that if they were to throw a late hit or punch during a game it could lead to a critical, 15-yard penalty. He praised two players specifically for remaining disciplined in the intense environment.
“I thought two of our players that are known to scrap a little bit, (Dan) Skipper and Austin Bryant, I thought did a hell of a job, both of them,” Campbell said. “Because I know that’s not easy, but they did exactly what we asked them to do, man. They toed the line, but neither one of them crossed it, and I told them, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Bryant teetered slightly over that edge Thursday, delivering an unrestrained hit in the open field after a reception and colliding with Colts backup quarterback Nick Foles on a pass rush.
Bryant expressed remorse for hitting the QB, acknowledging he can’t do things like that on the practice field. On the flip side, he laughed about his budding reputation for being an instigator in practice.
“Yeah because everybody on the team thought I’d be the one to start the brawl,” Bryant said. “So I decided to not be that guy. I was consciously thinking about not being that guy.
“… It’s hard, especially for a guy like myself,” Bryant said about maintaining his temperament. “I’m very emotional. I wear my heart on my sleeve when I play this game. I’m actually a calm, cool, lover-type of guy outside of ball if you’d believe that, but everybody thinks I’m just this ferocious fighter. I’m actually a good guy.”
Beyond his role as an agitator, Bryant built upon his already strong camp performance by making multiple, eye-catching plays against the Colts across the two days. Sitting firmly on the roster bubble at the start of camp, he’s seemingly well on his way to earning a spot on the 53-man roster.
“I think (the success) just comes with experience, man,” Bryant said. “I’m going into my fourth year. You all know my story, I’ve dealt with injuries. I finally got a good two offseasons of being healthy. I’m finally in a scheme where I feel it fits how I liked to play, finally in a culture where I get to work hard, have fun and be ourselves. I think it’s just been the fruits of that process.”
Funchess avoids serious injury
Tight end Devin Funchess went down with what appeared to be a shoulder injury Wednesday, but Campbell provided a positive update on the veteran ahead of Thursday’s session.
“Yeah, he’s good,” Campbell said. “We got him checked out last night, he’s good. He’s got a little bit of a stinger, so we’re going to get him loose and just see how he feels, and play it by ear. If he can go, great. If he can’t, he can’t.”
Funchess ultimately didn’t suit up for Thursday’s practice and his status for Saturday’s preseason game remains in doubt. In the preseason opener against Atlanta last week, the former Michigan standout had a stellar showing, catching all four passes thrown his direction, including a contested, back-shoulder fade for a touchdown.
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Worth tagging along
The Lions left a small contingent of injured players back home to work on their rehabs at the team’s practice facility, but made an exception for rookie receiver Jameson Williams, who was in attendance for the joint practice.
Campbell thought the experience was too valuable for the first-rounder to miss out on.
“It keeps him engaged in the football, in the meetings,” Campbell said. “We get a little more hands-on with the rehab, and then he gets to stay engaged in this environment. I mean, this is a different environment and I think any and all of this stuff is great for him. For somebody that’s young and learning, (he sees) what it needs to be or what it needs to look like.”
Heavy dose of backups on tap
Don’t expect to see many of Detroit’s starters playing in Saturday’s preseason game against the Colts.
“There’ll be a number of these guys that will not play in this game, a number of our starters, because they’re getting the bulk of the reps (in these practices),” Campbell said. “But there’ll a number of guys that have gotten the load here that will still play in this game. Certainly, we got a lot of battles still going on.”