It was the second day of minicamp, no pads, with players in “pajamas,” as Dan Campbell likes to say. But Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs gave everyone a glimpse of why he was the 12th pick of April’s draft.
On the fourth play of team period Wednesday, Gibbs found himself in a mismatch out of the backfield. He beat pass rusher Charles Harris with ease off the line, caught a quick slant from Jared Goff and hit the afterburners to blaze past safety Ifeatu Melifonwu for a would-be 60-or-so-yard touchdown.
“Granted, we were in a terrible call,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “We had Charles covering him on a take out of the backfield. But it’s just, it’ll be interesting.”
I wanted to get Anzalone’s early impressions on Gibbs as the leader of the Lions defense and someone who’s seen his fair share of dynamic running backs before.
As the Lions’ starting middle linebacker, Anzalone has occasionally found himself on the wrong end of mismatches like the one Harris got burned by Wednesday. And as someone who started his career with the New Orleans Saints, when one of the NFL’s best pass-catching running backs, Alvin Kamara, was in his prime, Anzalone knows full well what a dual-threat back can mean to an offense.
“I’m excited to kind of see where he is in training camp cause I think, he just got out here and I don’t know how hard he’s pushing it,” Anzalone said. “He’s a little speedy, but I’m excited to see his dead leg and those option routes and see what he can do with those.”
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Anzalone, who was taken nine picks after Kamara in the 2017 draft and played his first four seasons in New Orleans, said Gibbs and Kamara are as different as they are the same.
“I think A.K.’s a little bigger, thicker. He’s like 215-ish. And yeah, he’s a little taller,” Anzalone said. “So I’d say size-wise, no. I think Gibbs is a little faster speed-wise, but A.K. has a little like smooth sneakiness to him that it’ll be interesting to see (if Gibbs has). It’s hard to judge when we’re in pajamas. I want to see in a game, when people are going at it.”
Gibbs, 5 feet 9 and 200 pounds, has gotten plenty of work with the Lions’ first-team offense the past couple weeks with David Montgomery out with a leg injury.
His speed is evident, he runs crisp routes, and he’s quietly kept his head down and impressed his teammates. Asked Tuesday what Gibbs will bring to the offense this fall, Goff said casually, “a lot.”
“He can catch it. He can run it. We’re excited about him,” Goff said. “He’s done a hell of a job as well as a rookie, learning, picking things up, asking the right questions and can do some special things with the ball in his hands. So we’re excited to do that.”
Anzalone said Gibbs and Kamara are similar in that regard. Kamara has topped 80 catches every year he’s played at least 14 games, and he had a hugely impactful rookie season (81 catches, 826 yards receiving, 13 total touchdowns) when he helped the Saints win 11 games and a division title in 2017.
If Gibbs can have anywhere near that kind of impact, the Lions offense will be hard to stop.
“I’ve been a part of New Orleans where we had a piece like that, and yeah, it definitely (causes problems),” Anzalone said. “Cause even if you’re in zone defense, how are you going to match up to it? There are ways to defend it, but it definitely makes an additional (worry). And that’s probably what he’s going to be best is when he gets the ball in his hands, what does he do with it.”
More observations from Wednesday
Work on the side
Montgomery continues to work on a side field with trainers as he recovers from the leg injury he suffered in OTAs, and the Lions were without another one of their top free agent additions Wednesday as safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson sat out with an illness.
Gardner-Johnson’s absence meant a juggling of personnel in the Lions secondary. Melifonwu and Kerby Joseph spent most of the day playing safety (Tracy Walker did not participate in team drills as he returns from a torn Achilles) and rookie Brian Branch took second-team reps at slot cornerback behind Will Harris.
Emmanuel Moseley, Malcolm Rodriguez, Chase Lucas, Levi Onwuzurike, Hendon Hooker, Trinity Benson and James Mitchell are among others who remain out.
The situation is …
Lions coach Dan Campbell explained more Wednesday about why he’s put his team in more situational periods this spring than he did in previous years. On Tuesday, Campbell said he’s being intentional about situational work to try and ensure his team gets off to a fast start, and Wednesday he made it clear he thinks those situations will matter to a Lions team that expects to win a lot of games this fall.
“We’ve always done a lot of situational work, but to me it’s, we’re really doubling down on it,” Campbell said. “Like I want a lot more to where I’m forcing the coordinators to have to think on their feet. A lot more — it’s a little more chaotic, sporadic. I mean, we’re doing it right now. And just trying to put everybody under a high level of stress, because I think that’s good for the coordinators and the players. That’s kind of where my approach has shifted a little bit. A lot more into that and — because I think the more we can handle under pressure and under fire and be able to adapt, adjust, the picture changes, I can adapt quickly. I think that’s where you — games are won and lost, when you’ve got the right guys.”
The Lions had worked two situations at the end of their team period Wednesday, starting with a first-and-goal from the 10, with 10 seconds on the clock at the end of the first half.
Joseph nearly intercepted Goff’s first pass of the series, a slant to Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Goff threw incomplete to Marvin Jones on second down to settle for a field goal. Working with the second-team offense, Nate Sudfeld threw a touchdown to Jameson Williams on the first play of the same situation, when Williams ran uncovered in the back of the end zone.
For the second situation, the offense had a first-and-10 from the 24-yard line with 10 seconds left in a 28-24 game. Jarren Williams drew a pass interference penalty on the first play for mugging Josh Reynolds down the sideline, but the first-team offense failed to score on two chances from the 1. Brock Wright dropped a low pass in the end zone on first-and-goal, and undrafted rookie cornerback Steven Gilmore made a nice pass breakup on a throw to St. Brown (and was mobbed by his defensive teammates after the play).
Sudfeld threw a short pass to Jameson Williams on first down for a 7-yard gain, then grounded a ball to Tom Kennedy near the goal line with the defense crowding the end zone.
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Jameson Williams had his best showing Wednesday in the Lions’ open practices this spring, though it must be noted he played primarily with the second-team offense against a secondary of backups.
In team period, Sudfeld opened with two straight completions to Williams for first downs and he looked the second-year receiver’s way on his first pass to the end zone, when Starling Thomas had a PBU but Williams tugged on his jersey as if to indicate pass interference. Williams did not have a ball thrown his way from Goff in team period, but he was the intended receiver on one bootleg play, when Goff checked down to St. Brown for a short gain as the defense locked into Williams’ route.
Joseph had at least his second interception off Goff in a week Wednesday, tracking down a deep heave to Kalif Raymond on the second play of team period then handing it to Lions owner Sheila Hamp in the best celebration of the day.
Raymond had a step on his defender on the play, but had to wait for an underthrown ball, giving Joseph enough time to fly in from his deep safety spot to make the play. Joseph, who had a team-leading four interceptions last season as a rookie, also had a pick on Goff in seven-on-seven drills last Thursday.
As a group, the Lions defense continues to get its hands on a lot of passes. Brandon Joseph dropped a would-be interception off Adrian Martinez on Wednesday (and had an actual pick on the final play of the period, though the play was blown dead by a would-be sack), Brodric Martin and Cory Durden tipped passes at the line of scrimmage from Sudfeld, and Anzalone broke up a Goff pass to Gibbs on a wheel route.
James Houston, weirdly, has worked primarily with the third-team defense during open practices, behind Charles Harris and Julian Okwara at the rush linebacker position, and he’s destroying the offensive linemen who have little hopes of blocking him.
Of the 11 plays the third-team offense ran in team period (nine of them passes), Campbell blew three dead for would-be sacks and probably could have stopped three more. Houston had one sack, might have had another if Okwara didn’t get there first and Zach Morton delivered the third. Houston had two more clean rushes that would have resulted in a sack or decapitation had the Lions been going live.
He’s going to be a problem for opposing offenses again this year.
The Lions close minicamp Thursday, then have their final week of OTAs next week before breaking for summer.
Contact Dave Birkett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.