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Detroit Lions Day 18 training camp observations: Defense shows up in fast-paced practice

In what may have been the Detroit Lions’ final physical practice of training camp, the defense looked strong.

NFL: AUG 08 Detroit Lions Training Camp Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions took the practice field for the 17th time this training camp, in what was likely one of the last truly physical practices of the fall. Instead of the traditional early morning practice, the Lions decided to change things up this week. After a player-led practice on Monday, the Lions held an evening practice on Tuesday, in an effort to keep things fresh.

“Oh, just to change it up,” coach Dan Campbell said. “We’re in the fourth week of training camp, and so I think to those guys to be – you’re not under the lights, but yet the sun’s going down a little bit, and it’s a changeup. I always as a player enjoyed night practice and everybody I was ever around did (as well), so I think it will be good. We’ll be full pads, we’ll be going. And really, it’s going to be our last really good Detroit vs. Detroit practice we’re going to have for camp.”

If you missed any of our previous observations, you can catch up here:

Attendance/Injury updates

After shifting Jameson Williams to the reserve/NFI, as well as Romeo Okwara, Josh Paschal, and Jason Cabinda to the reserve/PUP earlier in the day, the Lions only have Jerry Jacobs left on the active PUP list. His health is still being evaluated for a potential reactivation ahead of final cuts, but nothing is guaranteed at this stage.

As for the injured players on the active roster, it was more of the same. Levi Onwuzurike, Julian Okwara, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kevin Jarvis, Eric Banks, and C.J. Moore remain out of practice. Moore, who was repping in special teams drills the past two weeks and was at practice on Monday, was in a walking boot on his right foot Tuesday, suggesting he suffered a possible setback in his recovery process.

Practice structure

After stretching and working through individual drills, the Lions structured the remainder of this practice with the intention of running through as many team drills as possible.

They opened with some special teams work, then shifted to traditional 11-on-11s for team drills. They repeated that schedule a second time, then shifted into situational work for the remainder of practice. The situational work was fast-paced and constantly shifting from the offense trailing and needing to score, then over to the defense needing to make a stop and get the ball back.

Typically they ran the situational drills twice, once with the first team, then a second time with a reserve quarterback. But the pace was so accelerated it was difficult to see how they were adjusting players between the second and third teams, and often saw a combination of the two.

Because things were so fast-paced, instead of trying to go through what happened in each series, I’m just going to address the players and situations that stood out for the starters and the reserves on both offense and defense.

First-team offense

At one of the goal line drills, the Lions' first-team offense ran a scramble drill to the right and Jared Goff tried to squeeze one in to Amon-Ra St. Brown in the back corner of the endzone but Jeff Okudah was in a great position and hammered him for the pass break up. The pair got to their feet trashing talking. Two plays later, St. Brown got his revenge on the defense, crossing up Amani Oruwariye—which drew the loudest cheers of the day—and got open for the touchdown. In typical St. Brown fashion, he celebrated, this time doing a dance with his teammates.

T.J. Hockenson went down on a big hit from Okudah, in what appeared to be a blow right underneath the pads and into the midsection. It could have just been a stinger or he got the wind knocked out because three reps later he returned to the field and went right back to business.

Jonah Jackson had a terrific seal block, where he pulled to the right side and opened a hole in the middle of the line. D’Andre Swift aggressively attacked, then angled to the sideline and was at least 35 yards downfield before he was tracked down inside the 5-yard line.

As nice as Jackson's block was, Frank Ragnow had the block of the practice, pulling on a screen and finding Malcolm Rodriguez in space. The All-Pro took the rookie for a ride at least 10 yards downfield before Rodriguez was able to get free, but the play was already past him.

Reserve offense

Tim Boyle arguably had the better day, but he remains erratic far too often. There are simple concepts he continues to force, which has to be frustrating for offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. David Blough didn’t help himself too much though either, as he was often left checking down, or trying to force plays to Tom Kennedy.

The second team skill players didn’t do a lot to stand out at today’s practice, as the unit struggled throughout most of practice.

First-team defense

At times we saw Austin Bryant fill in at the Julian Okwara role, as a stand-up pass rusher. In one instance, Bryant lined up outside of Aidan Hutchinson (opposite Charles Harris) and threatened to rush pre-snap, but instead took Swift on in coverage and carried him downfield with surprising efficiency. If Julian continues to miss, Bryant may have worked himself into the EDGE3 role.

Bryant wasn’t the only edge rusher to drop into coverage this practice, we also saw Hutchinson do it at a rapid pace. His ability to put his foot in the ground and change direction is elite—as we have seen in practice and games. He also had at least one sack and was moving bodies pretty consistently up front.

We also saw some situations where the defensive line adjusted their roles upfront, leaning on Isaiah Buggs at the nose and pushing Alim McNeill to the three-technique. Buggs has consistently worked his way up the depth chart and it now looks like he has the potential to take over Onwuzurike/Jashon Cornell’s role as DT3.

“I think it was after the Atlanta game,” defensive line coach Todd Wash said on Monday of Buggs freeing up McNeill to move around more. “We said, ‘Hey, we got to get a little bit more size, get a little more girth in there.’ And he has the athleticism–a lot of noses can’t do that, and get on the edge of the guard, but Mac can. So I think we’re going to see more production out of him (McNeill) at that three spot.”

At linebacker, the Lions started Alex Anzalone and Malcolm Rodriguez, then rotated in Derrick Barnes. The three have recently shown the ability to press the line and scrape down the line to the next gap in run defense. Anzalone had a sweet pass break up in just this situation, where he pressed the line and moved in the path of the pass. Rodriguez used this concept to attack a gap a secured a tackle-for-loss.

Okudah was very physical today, something he has shown marked improvement at. He also ran with the starters all day, and when combined with a much better performance than Will Harris did last Saturday, Okudah may be pulling away in the starter battle.

The Lions rotated AJ Parker and Mike Hughes through the starting nickelback role, and when you combine that with the fact that Hughes got the start last game, it suggests this position battle is very much alive, which is exactly what defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant said before practice.

“Close, very tight battle,” Pleasant said.

Tracy Walker remains a vocal leader and on one misdirection play, we heard his scream at one of his fellow defenders to stay on the outside to maintain contain. A few plays later the offense ran another misdirection and the player on the end of Walker’s correction was in the right spot this time and made the play.

Reserve defense

John Cominsky continues to make plays and with Bryant beginning to see more time at rush end, he has settled in as Hutchinson's primary backup. At the end of one 11-on-11 period, I credited him with back-to-back sacks, but the coaches only credited him with the first one. He also had another sack in the following period.

Cornell went from making stand-out plays early in camp to being just another body over the past few practices, including the last two games. He may be in danger of losing his high-repping role to Buggs (if he hasn’t already) and the rookie Demetrius Taylor has been taking giant leaps forward of late and could also be pressuring him for a job. Taylor continues to flash with first-step quickness and had a beautiful tackle for loss, arriving at the ball when Boyle was handing it off to Jermar Jefferson.

At linebacker, Board is repping pretty consistently with the second team now, often repping next to Anthony Pittman, though Jarrad Davis and Josh Woods did get some more runs with the twos this practice. This could be an important move for Woods, who has flashed late in games—and did in practice as well, including a 4-yard tackle for loss play today—but has consistently been near, or at the bottom of the linebacker depth chart. Davis continues to look better as an edge rusher than at stack linebacker.

Harris has struggled a bit recently, often finding himself in trail positions with no one to pass his assignment off to. His physicality as a tackler makes him a valuable asset but his coverage needs to take a step forward.

While Parker and Hughes rotated through first-team reps, Lucas continued to pick up the slack as the reserve nickel corner. Unfortunately, he dropped another interception in what would have been a drive-closing play, and you could see the frustration in his body language. He was also called for a questionable pass interference call, that several reporters didn’t agree with.

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