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The striking difference between Detroit Lions joint practices in 2023 vs. 2022

The Detroit Lions looked like a completely different franchise in 2023 vs. how they looked in joint practices last season.

Indianapolis Colts Training Camp Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Fifty-one weeks ago, the Detroit Lions traveled down to the vast Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana for a pair of joint practices with the Indianapolis Colts. I decided to take the four hour trip south to see how Dan Campbell’s squad would come out in Year 2. The attention was building, “Hard Knocks” was in town, and there was optimism surging after the team’s strong finish to 2021 that Detroit could be a sneaky team in 2022.

I left Day 1 of joint practices with a lump in my throat and pit at the bottom of my stomach.

The Colts–the freakin’ Colts–looked a class or two above the Lions. They dictated the pace of practice, had a level of intensity the Lions lacked, and Detroit had no answer on both sides of the ball–particularly on defense. You never want to overreact to the preseason–let alone a single preseason practice–but it certainly felt like an ominous moment.

This week was a complete role-reversal for the Lions. Hosting the festivities with the New York Giants in Allen Park, it was the Lions who commanded the opening practice. Jared Goff and the Lions offense showcased their new offensive weapons in rookies Sam LaPorta and Jahmyr Gibbs which had the New York media blushing. And Giants quarterback Daniel Jones struggled so much that you could almost hear the Giants front office scrambling to find outs in their quarterback’s new contract.

Now, I’m fully aware that likening today’s Lions to the 2022 Colts is not exactly a flattering comparison but consider the opponents. Indy asserted their dominance over the youngest NFL team coming off a 3-13-1 season. The Lions, on the other hand, just gave a wake-up call to a Giants team coming off a playoff win over a 13-win team in the Minnesota Vikings.

Putting aside intangibles like grit, confidence, and swagger, the most striking difference between this year’s set of joint practices and last year’s is without a doubt the improvements in the Lions secondary. Last year, as former first-round pick Jeff Okudah continued to struggle, it was easy to wonder if the Lions had a single defensive back who would start on a good defense. Pass breakups were about as infrequent as a coherent Jim Irsay tweet.

This year, the Lions secondary is littering the field with batted balls and punchouts. Rookie Brian Branch has been so dynamic that Detroit can’t keep him out of the starting lineup. As a result, C.J. Gardner-Johnson has shifted to more of a safety role, creating one of the best–and most entertaining–safety duos in the NFL with Kerby Joseph. There will be a lot of chirping this year.

Of course, the Giants bounced back in a huge way on Wednesday–just as the Lions did to the Colts a year ago. That only goes to show that the Lions have entered the next stage of organizational development. As a team gets better, new challenges arrive. Instead of being a team that plays from behind, that counterpunches, the Lions are now the team that asserts their dominance and must now prepare for the rebuttal. They’ve got the targets on their back. They must live up to the expectations. And Wednesday was a good reminder that while things are trending up in Detroit, they still have a lot to learn along the way.

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