Allen Park — On the first episode of “Hard Knocks” this offseason, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell sets the tone for what the team will be about while addressing the roster during a training camp meeting.
“What makes us what we are? And what we are going to be? It’s that right there. It’s grit,” Campbell said. “It’s what we started with last year, guys. It’s our core foundation, man, grit. What does it mean? In a nutshell, I think it means this: We’ll go a little bit longer, we’ll push a little harder, and we’ll think a little deeper and a little sharper. It means we’re unbreakable. To me, it means, we’ll play you anywhere. We’ll play on grass, we’ll play on turf, we’ll go to a f_______ landfill.”
If this is a coach readying his team to figuratively play on a mountain of garbage, it probably won’t surprise you to learn he didn’t care what time the Lions would be scheduled to play their season finale against the Green Bay Packers. But, shortly after Campbell’s Monday press conference, the NFL made it official — the Lions and Packers will close the regular season in front of a national audience on Sunday Night Football.
The Lions haven’t played in primetime this season. Heck, they haven’t even played a game outside the 1 p.m. window. But they welcome the opportunity, and they’re ready to show the nation what they’ve grown into since those days on “Hard Knocks.”
“I mean, I hope it gets flexed to Sunday night,” offensive tackle Taylor Decker said after Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bears. “I really hope it does, because that’s a historic stadium, historic franchise in the division. We’re playing a divisional opponent. What else could you want?”
The obvious downside of playing Sunday night is the Lions’ fate could already be decided. If the Seattle Seahawks beat the Los Angeles Rams, Detroit will be eliminated before they kick off. That would be an obvious disappointment, but good luck dampening Campbell’s enthusiasm for the matchup.
“I mean, I can’t worry about that,” he said. “We can’t worry about it. For us, it’s got to be a win-win, either way. Either we’re playing to get in or we’re playing to be spoiler (knocking the Packers out of the playoffs) and that’s it. So, either way, we win.”
Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson has put together an impressive rookie season, showing steady improvement and a consistent ability to stuff the box score. Through 16 games, he’s among the league leaders in defensive snaps at his position, and with that playing time, he’s tallied 48 tackles, 7½ sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
That’s put him in firm contention for Defensive Rookie of the Year, alongside New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner and Seahawks corner Tariq Woolen.
Campbell said it would be unfair of him to offer an opinion on how Hutchinson stacked up against those two defensive backs, rather choosing to emphasize how the former Michigan standout has been everything the team had hoped for when they selected him this past April.
“I know as far as us picking him, for what we wanted him for, he’s everything we’ve wanted, man,” Campbell said. “With the No. 2 pick in the draft, we got a freaking football-playing dude, man, who’s high-motor, and he’s versatile as hell. So, I don’t know what that is. If you’re asking me to cast a vote, yeah, I would cast a vote, but I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of everybody else, but for our value, absolutely.”
Woolen, who fell all the way to the fifth round, is tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions. He’s also forced three fumbles, while allowing just 52.9% of throws in his direction to be completed.
Gardner, who is both the favorite for the award and the No. 1-rated cornerback in the NFL, according to analytics site PFF, has a league-high 20 pass breakups and two interceptions. He’s held opposing QBs to a 63.9 passer rating when targeting him.
Emptying the bag
The Lions, under Campbell, have already developed a reputation for aggressive play-calling, including heavy usage of trick and fake plays. So, you can expect that to factor into the finale against the Packers.
With the playoffs on the line, or at the very least, the ability to force Green Bay to share in the misery of missing the postseason, Campbell said he will be looking to empty the bag in the finale.
“Look, every week, you’re trying to give your guys the best plan you could possibly give them,” Campbell said. “That goes without saying, but this one you just want to make sure you don’t leave any stone unturned. You’re looking for every little nugget that’s out there potentially, any way that you can find some type of advantage and make sure that you give your guys the very best opportunity to have success and maximize your roster versus their roster.”
In a less-meaningful finale against the Packers last season, the Lions showcased their willingness to go deep into the bag of tricks, having wide receiver Tom Kennedy take a handoff on a reverse and throw a 75-yard touchdown to Kalif Raymond in the 37-30 victory.
Starting safety DeShon Elliott’s status remains in the air. The veteran wants and hopes to play after missing the past two games, but the team can’t commit until they see how his injured shoulder responds on the practice field this week.
Ifeatu Melifonwu, who has filled in for Elliott the past two weeks, rebounded from a rocky first start in Sunday’s victory over Chicago.
“I think that some of the things that he was asked to do were a little different than last week, just the nature of the opponent, however, I thought he answered the bell,” Campbell said. “I thought he was better. I thought he tried to play more aggressive. He had a pretty big fourth-down stop. That was good to see, so yeah, it was encouraging.”