The Detroit Lions held their fourth day of 2023 training camp on Wednesday, and after a solid showing from the offense the day prior, it was the defense making the most plays heading into the team’s day off.
No injured player returned to the field on Tuesday, meaning Marvin Jones Jr. (NFI), Emmanuel Moseley (PUP), and Hendon Hooker (NFI) remain on the Lions' injury lists. Meanwhile, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Jameson Williams also missed practice and were working with trainers.
New additions to the injury report include right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who was injured late on Tuesday, and hybrid defensive back Brian Branch. Branch did not appear to suffer an injury the day prior, so it’s not clear why he was on the sidelines, and we likely won’t get an update on his status until we talk to coach Dan Campbell at Friday morning’s press conference.
Additionally, wide receiver Tom Kennedy made a terrific catch down the seam during team drills but came into contact with rookie linebacker Jack Campbell mid-air and landed awkwardly on his arm/shoulder. Kennedy would not return to the drills but stayed on the field with his teammates for the remainder of practice.
Back to basics on defense
After spending the first three days of training camp shifting between four and five-man fronts, the Lions spent more time in their four-man fronts with man coverage behind them on Wednesday.
While the Lions went back to their previous edge roles, the starters remained Aidan Hutchinson and Charles Harris. The second pair up was John Cominsky and Josh Paschal, with Romeo Okwara and James Houston third, but they also split some time with Julian Okwara.
With the offense no longer working in the red zone—a situation that favors the offense in training camp—the defense used the opportunity to get more aggressive on Wednesday and the results were instant.
Hutchinson jumped out of the gate with a sack and a tackle for loss on the first team series of practice, beating tight ends Brock Wright and Sam LaPorta with power and agility. Charles Harris also likely would have had a sack after a slick outside move on Taylor Decker. Romeo Okwara also got in on the fun later in the day, dispatching the Lions’ third-string offensive tackles for his own sack. On the opposite side, James Houston was also primed for a big play but was egregiously held.
But it wasn’t only sacks and tackles for loss. Isaiah Buggs, Brodric Martin, and Benito Jones all knocked down passes at the line of scrimmage, while Will Harris and Malcolm Rodriguez registered pass breakups in coverage.
“Yeah, I think I need to get a little taller,” backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld—who stands at 6-foot-6—joked with the media after practice. “No, we got some big guys on the d-line, they’re definitely getting really active with their hands up and it’s tough on us. Yeah, it’s impressive. I would love to see them do that a lot next year, because it’s very frustrating as a quarterback when you see the read, see the guy open, and it gets batted down. It’s just really frustrating it’ll make you mad. Really cool to see them do it and it’s a good challenge for us to keep working on.”
When asked specifically about the rookie Martin, Sudfeld commented, “Yeah, I’m a tall guy and I felt like I was looking up to him like a big brother. So, yeah, he’s a big boy, but I’ve got to find (passing) angles.”
The Lions started shuffling around their linebackers on Wednesday, and most notably, Jack Campbell was getting more snaps with the first team. Overall he looked comfortable and showed his range when dropping into coverage—something that was evident during the play where Kennedy was injured.
Derrick Barnes was on the other end of the Campbell snaps, shifting back to the twos when the rookie moved up. Barnes once again had a pretty solid day, but his biggest gaffe came in the final practice session when he slipped/fell in coverage and gave up a big play.
“The worry is not if I’m going to start, if I’m going to play,” Barnes confessed after practice. “The worry is getting better and continuing to help myself grow and find happiness and comfort in myself. Competing, doing the best I can to let everything come by itself. I try so hard not to focus on that (starting/not starting) because when I do, I can tell the difference in my game. It takes away a little bit of my happiness when I do that because I’m focusing on the wrong thing.”
We also saw an expansion of duties with UDFA rookie Trevor Nowaske who was lining up off-the-ball and on the edge.
“Yeah, they’re using me all over,” Nowaske told Pride of Detroit after practice. “The more you can do, right?”
Injury replacements at nickel
With Gardner-Johnson and Branch not practicing the Lions went back to last year's two-deep at nickel, starting Will Harris and leaning on Chase Lucas with the second team. As mentioned earlier, Harris got a pass breakup late in practice, while Lucas got a would-be sack for the second day in a row.
With Harris shifting inside, the Lions have utilized a CB4 rotation on the second team opposite Starling Thomas. Jarren Williams and Steven Gilmore got time there on Tuesday and Khalil Dorsey was first up on Wednesday.
We also saw a shift at the fourth safety spot opposite Ifeatu Melifonwu, with Saivion Smith taking over reps after Brady Breeze was in that role earlier in camp.
For the majority of the day, the offense was unable to push the defense deep down the field, leading to Jared Goff and Nate Sudfeld settling for short to intermediate passes. For the most part, the primary beneficiaries were Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond each catching a few passes underneath the defense, while LaPorta and James Mitchell found space over the middle and in the flats.
The only offensive skill player who seemed to make any noise downfield was Amon-Ra St. Brown—and most of that impact was in his yards after the catch. Two times, on a quick out and a curl, St. Brown was able to find his blockers and get behind them for solid gains. His best reception came on a 25-yard bullet from Goff, easily the most impressive offensive play of the day.
Like on defense, the Lions experimented with some role expansion on the offensive side of the ball as well, most notably, with seventh-round rookie Antoine Green getting some time with the starters.
“Oh yeah, Antoine showed up and I think he had some reps with Jared yesterday,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said ahead of practice. “And that’s a product of, we’ve got a couple guys dinged up and not practicing. But same thing, like Sam (LaPorta), talking about Sam earning that right, Green has earned that right to get a couple reps. And so, he’s starting to develop a little bit of trust, he’s playing faster than what he was in the springtime and that’s his biggest challenge right now. He’s a 4.4 (40-yard dash) guy, he needs to play 4.4 every single snap and when he does that, he shows an ability to get open.”
Green is gaining incredibly valuable experience with these reps and when he makes a mistake—as he did on Wednesday—he’s getting some heated attention from Johnson and wide receiver’s coach Antwaan Randle El.
A few other young receivers made some notable plays, including Trinity Benson catching a high throw from Adrian Martinez for 18 yards, while UDFA rookie Dylan Drummond caught a quick out to help set up a field goal opportunity for the second team offense during a one-minute drill.
With Vaitai not practicing, Graham Glasgow was with the first team, opening the door for Colby Sorsdal to bump up to the second team. Sorsdal got some one-on-one time with offensive line coach Hank Fraley, as his opportunities are starting to increase.
The Lions shook their special teams drills up a bit on Wednesday, spending time on kick coverage and blocking drills, while also introducing some one-on-one opportunities.
In the heads-up drill, teammates set up an alley, while the offensive players were given the ball and asked to get past a defensive player, who was trying to, basically, two-hand touch his opponent. The results were somewhat as expected. The top Lions' special teamers stood out, including Justin Jackson, Kalif Raymond, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Anthony Pittman, Will Harris, Starling Thomas, Khalil Dorsey, and Maurice Alexander.
The two most fun matchups were Tom Kennedy versus Cam Sutton and Jerry Jacobs versus Amon-Ra St. Brown. In Kennedy’s matchup, he quickly slipped by Sutton who was overly aggressive, and Sutton immediately asked for a rematch. They lined up again and Kennedy once again had a slick move to slip by Sutton.
In the Jacobs matchup, Jacobs looked like he won a close battle, but then immediately called for an end-of-session rematch, but this time Jacobs wanted to be the one with the ball. As the rematch began, Jacobs started his run, then did a sneaky stepback move that caused St. Brown to whiff, to which the defensive players erupted in cheers. Maybe a little payback from last year when St. Brown was on the positive side of things after hurdling Jeff Okudah in a similar drill.
The kicker battle continued today, with both Riley Patterson and Parker Romo converting four of their five attempts. Patterson missed from 33 yards, while Romo missed from 38 yards. Patterson was also the chosen kicker at the end of the team’s one-minute drill and successfully hit from 45 yards.