May 28, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Lions' defense churns while 'sloppy' offense learns

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Allen Park – It was the first play of the 11-on-11 drill between the first offense and first defense Wednesday. Matthew Stafford dropped back to pass. Protection was good. Calvin Johnson did an out-and-up move and sped past cornerback Darius Slay.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that long touchdown pass. The ball hung up, Slay caught up and batted it away.

Not that it matters all that much right now – the first game is still more than three months away – but the defense has been winning the vast majority of the team drills these past two weeks of OTAs.

“I think we had a good day,” middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “I think we got after it, made some plays. Shoot, the offense gets paid, too, but I think we dominated today.”

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi didn’t deny it.

“I think always at this point you can have that appearance,” he said. “I don’t even necessarily concern myself as much about whether we won the play or not. Listen, I know that these plays work. I know that the offense that we’re developing will work.

“It’s more whether guys are lining up correctly. The drops start to bother you after a while, but as long as we’re getting our snaps, not fumbling, lining up correctly and running the plays correctly, I know when we get in a game-planning situation that these things are going to be just fine.”

'Frustration!'

In the meantime, Lombardi could barely hide his frustration Wednesday. The ball was on the ground a lot during the team drills. All three offensive units failed to score in the two-minute drill. All three units were plagued by drops and sacks.

One drive ended when the third offense couldn’t get the snap off in time coming out of a timeout. At that point, the defensive players were howling.

“Frustration!” yelled cornerback Cassius Vaughn.

For the final drill, the offense was given the ball at the defense’s 42-yard line with 50 seconds left and no timeouts – down by two points. It took a questionable pass interference call to put the first offense into field-goal range. Rookie kicker Nate Freese missed a 46-yard attempt.

The second unit didn’t move it far, but kicker Giorgio Tavecchio got the offense its only points of the day, nailing a 56-yarder on the indoor field.

“I mean, today was a little sloppy, I’m not going to lie to you,” Lombardi said. “I was getting a little angry because I thought that mostly the drops and some of the alignments weren’t what you want. So, it was really a concentration issue more than anything, but I’m pretty excited about these players we have and the way this thing’s going to develop.”

The offense is brand new. The defense has some new wrinkles, but it is still a 4-3 system, which has been in place here the past five seasons. So, it isn’t a shock that the defense is ahead of the game right now.

“I feel like right now they just haven’t caught their groove yet,” said Vaughn, who has been one of the defensive standouts thus far. “We’ve caught ours a little bit and we understand, our defense has been simplified for us. But they (the offense) are on their way.”

Lombardi admitted Wednesday he may have overloaded the offense a bit, put in more than they could process at this juncture.

“You know, we kind of started off with a pretty high volume of information that we gave them, probably a little too much,” he said. “So, we’re drawing back a little bit, but certainly Matt (Stafford) can handle as much as you can give him.”

Stafford was asked how far along he thought the process of learning the new offense was and he couldn’t put a number on it.

“It’s one of those things you just build on day by day,” he said. “You continue to try and correct the little mistakes that you have and make sure they don’t pop up over and over again. Once you get that stuff down, then you have to start mastering each guy and his individual route tree and how he’s running certain routes.

“There is a growing process but that’s what these (OTAs) are for. It’s a chance to practice the new stuff we’re learning.”

'Guys are still learning'

Johnson said most of the problems the offense has been having during the drills are self-inflicted and a function of players thinking too much about what they are supposed to be doing and not concentrating on making the plays.

“It’s not the same as last year, by any means,” Johnson said of the offense. “It’s a whole new offense and guys are still learning. The (first two groups), we’re getting it down right now. If you go back to last year, everybody knew the offense and I felt like the offense was on top of the defense at this point. We’re learning. It’s coming along.”

Johnson said his role in the offense is different than his role in the previous system, with one similarity.

“You will see me in different positions in the offense,” he said. “I like it because we can run one play out of so many different looks. For every play we have there is so much variety.”

Johnson, though, said the defense and the energy it was bringing to these sessions was helping to speed the learning curve.

“It’s good to see our defense performing at a high level right now,” Johnson said. “We love it. They’re going to get better and we’re going to get better just because they are so sharp right now. This is going to make us all better in the end.”

While there has been little evidence of it on the field to this point, the consensus among players on both sides of the ball is that once it’s learned, this offense is going to be dynamic.

“The potential is there, obviously, to be a real good offense, just because of the talent we have and the coaches we have and the scheme,” Stafford said. “But it’s on us as coaches and players to get this mastered – and we are a ways from that, no question.

“This is a play-intensive, verbiage-intensive offense and it’s something that’s going to take time. That’s what this offseason is for.”

Twitter@cmccosky

Matthew Stafford warms up before the start of practice Wednesday. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News