Camping Trip – A Day with the Detroit Lions

| August 9, 2011

This week I’ve been lucky enough to join Peter King and his team on a tour of the NFC North training camps. I’ll be reporting back from them all on the key positional battles and other points of interest (to me at least) that I pick up along the way.
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First up are the Detroit Lions where I saw the Monday practice, chatted with Cliff Avril and managed to get some good stuff from Jim Schwartz too.
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Key Positional Battles
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Third Wide Receiver

At the moment, the starters are set with Calvin Johnson (who is actually bigger and stronger than last year) and Nate Burleson. Johnson generally abused his own secondary today and I’m convinced it won’t be the last time defensive backs get it handed to them by him this year. However the third job is up for grabs and all of rookie Titus Young, Maurice Stovall and Rashied Davis could be the next guy on the field. My view? I really liked what I saw from Rashied Davis who did a pretty good job for Chicago last year in the limited (144) snaps he saw. He caught a number of balls and looked to have few problems getting open underneath.
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Halfback

I could be wrong but I thought I felt more than I might have considered the usual angst from Jim Schwartz when his second round draft pick, Mikel Leshoure blew out his Achilles today. Obviously, anyone would be disappointed losing a guy for the year but this felt a lot more like the whole strategic plan — which was coming together even better than had been expected — had shredded together with Mikel’s tendon. Mikel is a much bigger, more direct back than Javid Best and it seemed that the one-cut inside part of a potential two back equation was lost.
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Defensive Line

The obvious strength of the team, I get the impression the plan here is to let this group have even more license to get up-field than previously. Sure they’ll get caught out from time to time but this will be an acceptable risk given the expected benefits.
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Cliff Avril, the player who delivered more pressure on third down than anyone else last year, was genuinely excited about the opportunity to reproduce that this year. With the line even more stacked than in 2010 and with the added bonus of this being a contract year, look for Cliff to deliver again and this time pick up some much deserved press in 2011.
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Linebacker

When I asked Jim Schwartz where he felt he’d got to with his linebacker upgrade in free agency, he was a little more non-committal than I’d hoped. He stressed that DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and even Ashlee Palmer could and had played both inside and outside (not sure when Tulloch was outside but maybe it was early in his career at the Titans), there was a lot of flexibility at that position and he’d hopefully finalize the position by the third preseason game.
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Given that the starters of Tulloch, Levy and Justin Durant, looked set, I’m guessing what he meant was the role of the other nickel LB, alongside Tulloch, was up for grabs. I saw both Durant and Levy with the job alternately during practice which is potentially concerning. Worst case scenario: that Levy hasn’t proved himself up to the job and that Durant, who despite being a first-rate run stuffer has previously struggled in coverage, has become a port in a storm. The best: Durant improved markedly over the off-season in that regard – I’ll let you decide the most likely scenario.
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Defensive Back

I don’t think anyone in Detroit believes their secondary is better than most of us suspect but they may just hope, with the amount of pressure their potentially awesome D-Line is going to produce, they might not need to be. That said, one player coach Schwartz was incredibly high on was Amari Spievey. He singled him out as a guy who had flashed ability last year but had come to training camp this year both physically and mentally a far better safety; a player who had dedicated himself to improvement in the offseason and who had delivered on it and then some. There wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy in this practice to underline this (either one way or the other) but I certainly felt Schwartz thought he was set at safety with Amari and Louis Delmas.
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On the outside, as expected, Eric Wright joined Chris Houston but unlike in Cleveland, in the nickel Wright stayed wide. The guy who took the slot was also an ex-Brown, Brandon McDonald and with the guy I thought might get the position, Alphonso Smith, out injured, he did a solid job.
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Final Thoughts

As much as you can ever pick up anything in practice (never mind 7-on-7) Matthew Stafford looked great today. One pass in particular, deep down the right sideline, hit Calvin Johnson perfectly in stride between two defenders. While the attendant Detroit media seemed keen to ask if the team had turned the corner, I believe that actually happened last year and this team will seriously challenge for a play-off spot; they have a plan on both sides of the ball, real strengths and few major weaknesses. If they sneak up on anyone it will be because people simply aren’t looking in the right direction.
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  • Joseph Buccellato

    thank you

  • yankee434

    the lions are a little overyhped, but they should finish at around 8-8 or 9-7. I really don’t like their corners, besides Wright, and they aren’t all that good offensively. My main problem is that I don’t know that they are better than some of the other teams competing for a wild card spot.anyway, i write for a blog and i am trying to come up with a running back stat. i used some data i found in your offensive line rankings. can you check it out and tell me what you think of my stat? i tried to make as simple as possible. thanks, you guys are the best football guys out there. http://www.prosportswrap.com/breakthrough-a-new-running-back-stat/

  • young8

    Are you sure about TULLOCH ???

    According to Kowalski, Durant & Levy were playing in the Nickel with him on the bench

    • Neil Hornsby

      Not saying that isn’t the case but Tulloch was the ever-present with the first team in yesterdays practice on the snaps I saw. Let’s see how it pans out. As Jim Schwartz told me yesterday he wants the position sorted by Pre-season game 3 so that should be definitive but I would guess we’ll get some major clues in games 1 and 2.

      • young8

        Thanks