Allen Park — The Lions offense struggled in organized team activities open to the media the past three weeks, but on the first day of mandatory minicamp Tuesday, the unit was impressive.
On a deep post route, wide receiver Calvin Johnson ran past cornerback Bill Bentley and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, and though he wasn’t the primary target, quarterback Matthew Stafford scrambled to hit Johnson in stride with a pass longer than 50 yards for a touchdown.
The Lions have been going through a learning curve with a new coaching staff, and during OTAs, the defense appeared to be ahead of the offense. But the offense took charge Tuesday, and coach Jim Caldwell said he hopes the trend of the two sides winning different practices continues.
“Oftentimes you’ll see one day one side of the ball maybe perform a little bit better than the other, and then the next day it usually exchanges because the other team goes in, they look at their mistakes, they have pride, they’re competitive and you see it flip flop,” Caldwell said. “And that’s what it’s been doing, and that’s a good sign, rather than one side completely dominating the other. Obviously, then you feel that you’re in trouble.”
Three of the 10 OTAs were open to the media, but all three days of minicamp this week will be open before the team takes more than a month off before training camp.
Caldwell said he’ll have plenty to worry about no matter which side plays better the next two days.
“A head coach never has a good day because when the offense does well, then I’m worried about the defense,” he said. “When the defense does well, I’m worried about the offense, right? It’s kind of been back and forth, which I think has been healthy. It’s been competitive, and it’s been good.”
The players defended themselves after some lackluster OTAs, saying the offense is on schedule with learning coordinator Joe Lombardi’s scheme. But the boisterous defense bragged during and after those practices. One reason the defense feels confident is because coordinator Teryl Austin’s scheme shows a lot of fronts and blitz packages, similar to the Ravens, where he coached the past three seasons.
Johnson said he’s excited about the similarities between Lombardi’s offense and the Saints, where he coached the past seven years.
“It’s an offense that led those guys to the Super Bowl a couple years ago, and when you look back through the film, we could see exactly what coach wants and we could apply it on the field,” Johnson said.
Caldwell said the staff has been charting every mistake players make, whether it’s a missed assignment or anything else, and the length of that chart has been decreasing.
“Even though it’s a new concept on both sides of the ball, we want to see — and we’re starting to see — a little bit more proficiency, fewer mistakes,” he said.
Wide receiver Jeremy Ross said a lack of time in the new offense was the main thing holding the offense back during OTAs. Most of the receivers, including Johnson and Golden Tate, struggled with drops while the quarterbacks, especially Stafford, had accuracy problems.
“The last few weeks we were less experienced than we were today,” Ross said. “I think as time goes on we’re only going to get better because we’re studying our plays more, getting our chemistry down and we’re getting more time to work.”
Johnson agreed the offense looked better Tuesday.
“Guys are really getting things down,” Johnson said. “We’re having less and less mental errors out there.”