Detroit Lions’ Dan Campbell left joint practices with Colts feeling ‘like we stack up’

Detroit Free Press

WESTFIELD, IND. — The Indianapolis Colts have made the playoffs two of the past four seasons and are the favorites to win the AFC South this fall.

They’re not the NFL’s model franchise, but they’re routinely one of its most competitive, and in that regard they were a good litmus test for what the Detroit Lions can be.

Talking before the second of two joint practices against the Colts on Thursday, Lions coach Dan Campbell said he left the first practice reassured the Lions are on the right path in their rebuild and confident they can compete against some of the better teams in the league.

The Lions are coming off a 3-13-1 season and have not made the playoffs since 2016.

“I think you want to know you don’t look out of place and I didn’t feel that way,” Campbell said. “I didn’t feel that way. And I think ultimately that’s what you want to know is like, ‘Man, do — is this something where we feel like we’re outmatched?’ And I didn’t feel that way.”

Campbell offered a favorable review of his team’s play Wednesday, when the Lions struggled badly in offensive seven-on-seven drills and defensive red zone work.

The Colts’ big receivers had their way with the Lions secondary inside the 20-yard line Wednesday, while the Lions struggled to get separation in their passing game against their Indianapolis counterparts.

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But Campbell said the Lions showed fight in several areas on defense, particularly up front, and “when the O-line came over we were different” on offense.

The Lions scored twice in three red zone plays from inside the 10-yard line Wednesday, and Josh Reynolds dropped a touchdown on the third play.

“It was good to see those guys go eat in the middle,” Campbell said. “I thought some of our combination blocks in the middle there, in the run game, but the pass protection as well, was our play-pass stuff was as good as I’ve seen in a while, which is encouraging. So that fired me up. They got our tempo going when the big boys came over. So that was good to see.”

The Lions expect to have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and football is an 11-on-11 sport, so their success in team drills cannot be overlooked.

And in Thursday’s second practice, the Lions fared better across the board.

Defensively, the Lions still struggled to match the Colts’ size and physicality at receiver, but they held Indianapolis scoreless in 12 red zone plays (six by the first-team offense and six by the second team) and without a first down in a pair of two-minute drills. Colts coach Frank Reich declined a third down pass interference penalty that would have the first of the two-minute drills alive because he wanted to see his first-team offense in a fourth down situation.

Offensively, the Lions frustrated the Colts with their physicality up front and fast-paced play. According to the Indianapolis Star, Jamaal Williams scored a punishing rushing touchdown in red zone drills and Jared Goff threw three touchdown passes on the day.

Asked how he felt the Lions matched up with the Colts after Thursday’s practice, Lions center Frank Ragnow said, “We’re definitely right there, man.”

“We definitely came out humming,” he said. “The second day they came out humming a little bit more, but I think we kind of leveled that and then we rose to the occasion. The challenge for us is to keep it steady both times, not have those lulls. And we definitely got a long ways to go but it’s definitely really encouraging.”

The next test for the Lions is Saturday’s preseason game against the Colts, when most starters on both teams are expected to sit.

Despite solid play from their second-team defense Thursday, the Lions have less depth than many NFL teams, something they will need to get through the year.

The Lions are winless in the preseason under Campbell, going 0-3 in exhibition play last summer and losing to the Atlanta Falcons last week. But Campbell said joint practices filled him with a belief that wins will be coming soon.

“It gives you a confidence,” he said. “It gives us a confidence, but you can feel it in our players. Our players have a confidence, like, OK, they feel we’re getting better, and to know that they feel like we stack up against these guys, that we’re not out of place and that we are getting better, and that we can do some things in all three phases. It gives our team confidence.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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