Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia always warns against ugly football in September. In the past, we’ve seen him turn up the intensity in training camp to get the team ready for the regular season, because there isn’t a lot that can completely prepare you for the speed of an NFL regular season game. Teams only have 16 games, so if they don’t hit the ground running, the season could be over before it even started.
One major tool teams have to get prepared for Week 1 is the preseason. Unfortunately for the Lions and the other 31 teams, they won’t have that luxury this year. This week, the Lions were supposed to kick off their exhibition season against the New England Patriots preceded by a week of joint practices. Instead, they haven’t even put on the pads yet.
“It’s not like the other sports where you have a lot of games to go out and play, and you can get better by playing games,” Patricia said on a teleconference Friday. “We don’t have that luxury, and certainly without preseason games it’s even less. So for us, we have to improve during practice.”
The NFL afforded teams with a long ramp-up period to help make up for that time. Additionally, as Patricia notes, teams actually have three extra days of preparation now that they don’t have to travel for away preseason games (one day to arrive, one day for the game, and one to leave/review tape). But even with those adjustments, the challenge of getting ready for Week 1 is tougher than ever.
One of the biggest hardships is getting tackling technique ready. In a typical training camp, teams avoid too much live tackling in an effort to stay as healthy as possible. Joint practices and the preseason offer opportunities to practice both giving out and receiving that full contact. But without both, how will it get done?
“We’re going to need to tackle somebody before we get to that first game,” Patricia said. “You need to feel it; you need to see it; you need the see the speed of it. The question is: How do we do that in a safe environment?”
It’s not an easy question to answer, so Patricia tapped some of his coaching resources. The college football season begins without the luxury of a preseason, and their regular season is even shorter, increasing the need to start hot. They also had the advantage of getting a head start on the virtual offseason.
“My resources in college football and the guys that I know that coach at that level were probably the first ones that I contacted going through the spring because they were in the virtual world before we were,” Patricia said.
“Then going in to training camp, certainly from a standpoint of college football, they don’t play preseason. So there is a ramp-up period that they follow and how they acclimate and get their players ready to go for the season. Those have been great tools for us to use and conversations for us to have with some college coaches.”
Although Patricia didn’t provide details of exactly what that may look like, he did note the delicate balance of introducing that live contact while also keeping his players safe before Week 1. One key to doing that: keep the contact close to the line of scrimmage rather than full-speed collisions—although at some point, they need to prepare for that, too.
“I think for us, it’s putting them in, we call it in-line situations, where maybe they collision and the contact isn’t as great, and it’s a little bit of a safer play and try to eliminate some of the more space and speed type of plays,” Patricia said. “But they still need to feel that; they need to be able to drive through and just get that out of the way, and do it also in a point in camp where we’ve had enough practice where we feel comfortable doing that safely and everybody’s operating at a high level in equipment, and also far enough away from the first game where you have enough time to recover from that standpoint.”
Given that everybody in the NFL is dealing with the same challenges, Patricia admitted that they are sharing ideas between teams. Ultimately, everyone wants their players to be healthy and prepared for Week 1.
“I think with as unusual of a time as we’re in for training camp, I think everybody really understands this is all new for everybody. Let’s try to bounce ideas and help each other out, as opposed to keep it all close to the chest, to yourself.”