By Michael Stets
ALLEN PARK — We are only four days into training camp, but as this year’s Lions team continues on its maiden voyage under a new regime for the first time since 2014, it’s quite clear head coach Matt Patricia is on a mission to instill a level of toughness that hasn’t been synonymous with the Honolulu blue and Silver in recent years.
The pads went on Sunday morning, and naturally, the hits and collisions elevated the level of physicality, as evidenced by spirited blocking drills featuring tight ends vs. edge rushers, as well as the old school nutcracker drill.
“Yeah, this is obviously the most exciting time of the year,” Patricia told reporters on Sunday morning. “We can actually get real football out there. The non-padded days are great to work in the team environment and then to get out there and orchestrate it all. But this is what you love. You know, again, pads we make a big deal out of it now because of all the different rules and changes and what we can and can’t do with it, but from a players standpoint, you should always want to play in pads. You should always want all of your equipment on. It’s a protection device, but you want to practice with it on so you know what it feels like in a game and really that’s the way the game was designed to be played was in full equipment and it’s just different.”
Plenty of topics have arisen since the first practice took place on Friday. In today’s report, I’ll tackle some of the main storylines from the opening four days of training camp and more.
The Importance of goal-line drills
As I attended the first Lions practice this past Friday morning, I noticed immediately that the morning session began with goal-line drills. This stuck out to me for two reasons: one, under previous head coach Jim Caldwell, the team always began with special teams. And two, it can be a very competitive drill, which some might think would take place later in practice as opposed to the beginning, so the team can build up to a certain level of intensity.
I asked Patricia his reasoning behind beginning practice with goal-line work, and he had a really interesting take on his reasoning behind it.
“Goal line is one of those really tricky things in the NFL to practice right now because it’s such a critical play,” he said during his morning press conference on Saturday. “Obviously, the ball could be on the one-yard line or two-inch line, but it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t come up that often in the game anymore. You’re lucky if you get 12 reps on the season. I think maybe the high in the last 14 years we might have had 18-19 and even a little bit further back on that a lot of teams ran bigger goal-line type personnel.
“But it’s something that you can’t wait too late to get into. I always feel it’s just good to get into the goal-line situations offensively and defensively because there is a lot of situational stuff that comes up there, and formation identification and different possibilities. And in such a critical situation of the game, you have to perform at a high level. We really need to build that sort of awareness and intelligence here through the course of the next four weeks. So, you start at day one, mix in a couple plays, couple more plays the next day and just get those guys feeling comfortable.
“What happens as the ball gets closer towards the goal line from a defensive perspective the anxiety goes up, just the nervousness and obviously wanting to compete to not let them score. From an offensive standpoint, your adrenaline goes up and you’re trying to look for matches and mismatches, and try to find some advantages in the defense. But everything happens so fast down there because of the shorter space, that in that situation, you know, you have to execute at a high level. So, you want to start on day one and it’s a good opportunity to do it without pads. And I know that kind of sounds backwards, but that way you can really concentrate on the cerebral part of it, and then when you can get pads on then you can really push into the physical part. So, it’s a really important thing for us because when it comes up you have to perform in that situation. It could be the biggest game of the year and you have to come through.”
The three traits Paul Pasqualoni seeks in a player
On the day the Lions reported for training camp, the media met with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and several of the assistant coaches. I gravitated toward Pasqualoni, who has a very engaging personality. You can’t help but feel privileged to be in the presence of an old-school football lifer, who is filled with almost five decades of pigskin knowledge. It was a lot of fun to hear him share anecdotes from his coaching memories while discussing the Lions’ defense.
Pasqualoni, 68, began coaching in 1972 as an assistant at Chesire High School in his hometown of Chesire, Conn. He hired Patricia as a graduate assistant while serving as head coach for Syracuse in 2001, and now 27 years later he will serve under him in Detroit.
“Obviously, I always knew Matt was a high energy, very bright guy,” said Pasqualoni, who last served as an NFL defensive coordinator in 2009 for the Miami Dolphins. “I always knew that. He is extremely well organized. The details regardless of what we are doing, whether it’s meetings, or practice, or the offseason program, or conditioning, or taking care of the players, hydration, nutrition, he really does an outstanding job.”
Pasqualoni was asked about what particular traits he seeks in a player.
“I want to see tough. I want to see smart and I want to see really well-conditioned guys,” he said before giving a detailed breakdown of each attribute.
“So, what do I mean by tough? Tough is working at a very, very high dependable level at a very consistent basis, regardless of what we are doing: meetings, lifting weights, practice, watching film, every single day. To me, that’s tough. Smart, not being … from a defensive standpoint, no penalties. No penalties. Knowing what to do. Knowing situational football.
“Oh, it’s 1st-and10. Is that different from 2nd-and12? Yeah, it is. OK. Are you aware of that? Is the red zone different than up the field? Is the goal line different than back-to-the-wall? Do you know where we are? So, that smart thing, OK, is really, really important. And conditioning is conditioning, being able to play hard every single snap. Not giving less effort because you are so tired you can’t go hard. So that’s … we are going to find out a little bit about that now.”
Installing the new running game
The Lion’s running game (or lack thereof) remains chief among topics this training camp. Questions on how it can improve after finishing last in the NFL rankings a season ago are lobbied on a consistent basis to coach Patricia and players alike. Lions GM Bob Quinn admitted the team lacked toughness while speaking to the media during the NFL Draft in April, and the moves he’s made this offseason have indicated that fixing the running game is of the utmost importance.
Quinn hired Jeff Davidson as the team’s new offensive line coach to replace Ron Prince, who was let go along with former head coach Jim Caldwell after last season’s disappointing 9-7 campaign concluded. He drafted an offensive lineman and running back in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft (Frank Ragnow and Kerryon Johnson) and signed veteran running back LeGarrette Blount. Despite firing Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Quinn retained the services of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, whose offense has been among the league’s best in passing.
During the media session with coaches on arrival day, I spoke to both Cooter and Davidson about the process of installing the new run game.
“Yeah, it’s been good,” said Cooter, who took over as offensive coordinator in the middle of the 2015 season. “Obviously, going through the offseason we watched all of our film from the previous season, maybe the previous two seasons, talked through philosophy, schemes, details within those schemes. In the NFL there are a lot of similar schemes, but there are minute details that people do dramatically differently. And we talked through that. How do we want to do this? How did you do it in the past? How have we done it here? Why for both.
“It’s been a good discussion, a good open discussion, but at the end of the day theory, office discussions, watching tape, that’s all really valuable stuff, but as soon as we put these pads on here that’s where we are really going to find out about our team. Like I said earlier, what our guys do best. What personnel groups do certain things well, and we will continue having those conversations. We are not a finished product. It will be a really vital month for us this offseason to continually evaluate our players, continually get better on our end and get this offense going.”
“I would say we’ve had a lot of communication and it’s a day-to-day procedure,” Davidson told me. “We are still learning each other as we go and hopefully we always will. To me, that’s the fun part of coaching. There are very few days that are the same as the previous one.”
The Lions’ running game has yielded way too many Sundays with the same results as the previous one, as in they haven’t had a back rush for 100 yards since 2013 when Reggie Bush totaled 117 yards on 20 carries in a 40-10 blowout win over the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day. Davidson, 50, began his NFL coaching career in 1995 as a volunteer assistant with the New Orleans Saints. He served as offensive line coach for the Denver Broncos in 2017. He said he loves how the players on the Lions’ O-line “go out and work every day,” and they are well aware, just as much as he is, that the run game must improve.
“I think they’ve all kind of taken it upon their shoulders that none of us are where we need to be and we have to keep the pressure on ourselves to find a way to get better each day.”
Will Golden Tate get a new contract?
It’s been a rewarding and bountiful offseason for wide receivers in the NFL, with teams shelling out large sums of cash to add new weapons to their respective rosters. Jarvis Landry landed a five-year deal with the Cleveland Browns worth $75 million. Sammy Watkins received a three-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs for $48 million and Brandin Cooks, who’s only topped 80 receptions once in four years, signed a five-year, $81 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams, with $50 million guaranteed.
So what does that mean for Golden Tate, who is in the final year of a five-year deal he signed back in 2014?
I wrote about this very topic a few days ago. It’s one of the biggest questions of the summer. And if past training camps are any indication, the deadline for an answer will be the end of the preseason. Lions GM Bob Quinn has reached new deals with several key players during camp the last two seasons, signing Theo Riddick, Sam Martin and Darius Slay to contract extensions in 2016, and Glover Quin and Matthew Stafford last summer. So it’s plausible to surmise if he plans on re-signing Tate, who has topped 90 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards all four years in Detroit, he will do so before the season starts.
Here’s what Tate had to say when I asked him his reaction to the big receiver deals that were signed this offseason:“Hope there is some [money] left. Congratulations to all those guys that have gotten big deals. They definitely deserve it.”
Tate, 29, is due to make $7million in 2018, and with the way wide receivers have been getting paid lately, it’s a safe bet he’d receive a sizable payday on the open market should the Lions choose not to sign him to a new extension. How much is Bob Quinn willing to pay him? That is another question to ask. Remember, Quinn comes from the New England Patriots, who don’t pay wide receivers big money. Something to keep in mind going forward.
On the Inside the Lions podcast, which I co-host with Nate Atkins from Mlive.com, we talked about Tate’s contract and gave a few scenarios of what may happen and what type of deal Tate may be seeking. You can hear that conversation as well as audio from Tate’s media scrum at the 12:30 mark in the link below.
The Battle for the No.2 cornerback job
The competition for the No.2 cornerback spot opposite Darius Slay is shaping up nicely. After the first four days, it appears to be a two-horse race between DeShawn Shead, who signed with the Lions in March after six seasons in Seattle, and 2017 second-round draft pick Teez Tabor. Both players have looked good during the first few practices taking on the likes of Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay.
“I love going against Kenny, him and Marvin are big guys, strong guys too,” Tabor said after Sunday’s practice. “They can high point the football. Definitely some good work just going up against those guys and being really physical.”
Tabor complimented several of his fellow cornerbacks when asked about the battle for the No.2 spot.
“I mean, it’s great competition,” he said. “We have a lot of great DBs in that room: Slay, [Jamal] Agnew, Quandre [Diggs], Nevo [Nevin Lawson], [DeShawn] Shead. It’s great competition. That only makes our team better. That only makes our room better.”
With Shead being a bigger corner like he is, Tabor said he’s already learned a lot from his new teammate.
“We talk on a daily basis just about stuff we are seeing on the field,” he told me. We pitch things back and forth. I learn a lot from him. [He’s a] very smart guy. Comes from a system where bigger corners are favored. I’ve just been taking little bits and pieces from his game.”
No matter who ends up starting opposite Slay, both corners should be seeing the field plenty this season. It will be very interesting to see how Patricia and Pasqualoni deploy them in different defensive packages and coverages.
Quotes of the week
“It’s real football now. You can say what you want, but this isn’t real football until you are putting on the pads and banging around.” — Frank Ragnow on the first padded practice of training camp
“We are one in a million out here. Just to be in the NFL is a blessing and to have another opportunity to be on the field definitely feels great.” — Kerry Hyder on returning from a season-ending achilles injury in the 2017 preseason
“I think the biggest challenge is probably coming together and communicating. The thing about defense is you have to know what you are doing so well that you don’t even think about it, and you can focus on what the offense is doing. So many times people get caught up in worrying about their job and they miss little small clues that the offense gives you as to what they’re doing. So, we have to put the work in to know what we’re doing at such a high level to where we make a call and we don’t even have to think about it. We already know exactly what we got and we can spend all our time focusing on what the offense is trying to do and how they are trying to attack us.” — Glover Quinn
“When I came into this league I was 21 years old and I felt pretty good most days. But, you know, 30 now and it’s different. A little bit of a new normal. I feel as good as I’ve felt coming into a camp in a long time. I feel really healthy and ready to go.” — Matthew Stafford
“We are talking about goal line with over 1,000 pounds in there. I ain’t trying to be involved in that.” — Darius Slay after being asked about goal line drills.
“I love his energy, though. You know when you love something and have a passion for something and you see somebody else with that same passion it’s like, ‘I love you.’ You know what I’m saying? It just raises your passion and energy for that same thing. Even when you don’t want to do it.” — Teez Tabor talking about coach Patricia
“I love that. And anything that I can do, even with DBs, we all coach each other up. I spend time coaching young DBs and the young wide receivers as well just because we are all a team. As soon as you get those guys going and get them acclimated to the NFL, the better.” — Marvin Jones Jr.
“A lot of times in practice I’m trying to wear them out. And I’ll put some of the more difficult periods at the end of practice where they are probably the most fatigued or tired mentally, especially. And you try to see how many mistakes they make in that situation because obviously, in the critical parts of the game, and as the game goes on, when we get to that sort of phase where the first quarter may be one thing. The second quarter is a little bit more important and critical.
“You get to the end of the first half, that’s a very important part. Third quarter there’s definitely some changes in the game that take place that try to manipulate control of it. But by the time you get to the fourth quarter, that’s where you’re really gaining control of the game, the points are more important, the yardage is more important, time of possession—everything increases from a critical standpoint and you try to simulate that in practice.” — Matt Patricia