Lions notes: Rodriguez goes viral for ‘judo hip toss’; LB coach not a fan of spy defense

Detroit News

Allen Park — If you thought Malcolm Rodriguez’s momentum might be slowed come the regular season, you’d be incorrect. Not only was the sixth-round draft pick Detroit’s highest-graded defender in Week 1, according to Pro Football Focus, but the coaching staff praised the rookie linebacker for having zero mental errors at one of the more difficult positions to accomplish that feat.

On top of it all, Rodriguez went viral for hip-tossing Eagles veteran center Jason Kelce, a four-time, first-team All-Pro selection.

Kelce took the moment in stride, discussing it with his brother, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, during a podcast this week.

“It was good. I thought I had him, I was driving him in the end zone, and right at the last second — Huzzah! — he gave me a judo hip toss. Did not see it coming,” Jason Kelce said. “That kid’s got a really bright future, he’s been a star of the ‘Hard Knocks’ show, seems like he’s got a great mentality. And it’s not the first time I’ve been viral for getting my a– kicked, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”

Rodriguez’s position coach, Kelvin Sheppard, noted he and Kelce came into the league the same year and had some battles, particularly when Sheppard was playing for NFC East rival New York Giants.

“That’s what I told Malcolm, ‘Me and Kelce came into the league together, you realize that? He had those same battles with your coach,'” Sheppard said. “So that’s kind of unique, but Kelce, man, he handled that like a professional. You call a spade a spade. Malcolm was getting his a– kicked until the end there, but at the very end he used that wrestling background that he has and kind of got him there. That’s the game, man. Those guys are going to get him, he’s going to get them.”

Dismissing value of spy defense

In last week’s season opener, the Eagles diced the Lions up on the ground, rushing for 216 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries. Still, Sheppard remains confident with his group’s ability to get the job done, chalking the Eagles’ success up to quarterback Jalen Hurts’ unique scrambling ability.

“The quarterback accounted for 90 of those (yards), and that’s what’s going to happen when you play a mobile quarterback like that,” Sheppard said. “Now is that acceptable? No, but it’s reality. We’re in coverage with our backs turned. Now the D-line has got to win. (Defensive line) Coach (Todd) Wash will tell you that, but those types of things are going to happen.

“To me, it’s about winning. I do not get caught up in statistics. But the facts are the facts. Who has lined up and run the ball between the tackles on us? The facts are the facts, guys. I’m going to keep it real, and I’m going to tell you the truth.”

Asked why the Lions didn’t deploy the common defensive tactic of having a linebacker spy Hurts in the contest, Sheppard dismissed that as bad football strategy.

“You show me tape where the spy stuff works,” Sheppard said. “What you do is you waste a defender when you operate like that and you’re playing prevent defense in a sense. Show me where a spy has tackled Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray in open space. So, to each his own, whatever you believe in, but I’ve seen that get torched on the college level and the NFL level.”

This week, the Lions will face a less mobile quarterback in Carson Wentz, but Washington running back Antonio Gibson presents an opportunity to validate Sheppard’s faith in his group.

“The offense damn near goes through him,” Sheppard said. “This kid is a legit player. Now, I don’t know why he doesn’t get promoted in the national spotlight, but this Gibson, this (No.) 24, he’s a real dude, man. They do a good job with the schematics of marrying what he does well. He’s an excellent zone runner, that’s the scheme that they do. They’re going to try and stretch you out and if he can put his foot in the ground and get vertical, it’s a problem. So it starts there with stopping the run.”

Successful conversion

In his third season with Washington, Logan Thomas has established himself as a quality NFL tight end. It’s easy to forget he entered the league as a quarterback and was converted to the position as a member of the Detroit Lions practice squad in 2016.

Thomas returned to Detroit in 2019, catching 16 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown before moving on to Washington, where he obliterated previous career highs with 72 catches for 670 yards and six scores his first year with the franchise.

“He’s unbelievable,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “Super smart, real good athlete, explosive. Look, he doesn’t run like he used to, but he’s still got the big-box radius. He knows how to use his body. He can bang around in there. He’s a pretty good blocker, and he plays all these different spots and roles because he’s smart.”

Before Detroit, Thomas spent some time with the Miami Dolphins, while still trying to make it as a quarterback. His time there overlapped with Campbell, who said the team broached a switch to tight end then, but Thomas wasn’t ready to hear it.

“We did, but he was not real fired up about making that change then,” Campbell said. “But, yeah he made it. So yeah, I was on that one a long time ago. He wasn’t having it.”

Favorable comparison

During his 14-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, four-time Pro Bowl receiver Hines Ward established himself as one of the game’s fiercest blockers at his position. As Ward’s teammate for three seasons, Lions running backs coach Duce Staley got to witness the receiver’s rare physicality first-hand.

“Hines was one of those guys who was looking you up,” Staley said. “You had to have your head on a swivel when Hines was around. He’ll hit you, knock the spit out of you, your nose might be bleeding and he’s laughing. Then he’d run back to the huddle. So we’d have a lot of fun.”

More than a decade later, Staley sees the same fire in second-year Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.

“Saint is kind of the same way, you know?” Staley said. “Saint is hunting down safeties, hunting down guys to block, moving his feet and being aggressive. That’s what you want from a wide receiver.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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