Niyo: Lions camp radiates with crackle and pop

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions rookie running back Kerryon Johnson takes the handoff from quarterback Matthew Stafford during drills Monday.

Allen Park — Standing with his back against a wall after another extended training camp practice Monday, veteran guard T.J. Lang wasn’t inclined to look over his shoulder.

But ask the two-time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl champ about what he sees in front of him — about what Lions fans are desperate to see this fall — and he’ll answer reflectively, not reflexively.

What’s different now with a new head coach taking charge and an old reputation lingering up front?

“The biggest thing so far has been attitude,” said Lang, referring to a retooled offensive line that struggled to stay healthy — injuries led to 11 different starting combinations — and simply couldn’t handle all the heavy lifting in 2017. “We took our lumps last year, and I think everybody’s making sure we’re gonna do our part and not let that happen again.”

Everybody can see that now, to a certain extent, as the Lions opened training camp last week, then opened the gates to the public Sunday, offering fans their first glimpse of the Matt Patricia era and how it fits general manager Bob Quinn’s vision for this franchise.

You could hear it as well, with the head coach yelling and the shoulder pads cracking and the fans cheering in Allen Park. The start of camp was, as center Graham Glasgow described it, “more than a thud.” And this was no coincidence.

Hammer time

“The level of hitting we’re doing this year in camp is probably a little bit more than we’ve done in the past, which is good,” Quinn said Monday in a WJR radio interview. “It’s a point of emphasis for Coach Patricia.”

And this is a point Quinn was making months ago himself, both before and after the draft, when the third-year GM invested another first round pick in the offensive line — selecting Frank Ragnow with the 20th overall pick — and then spent a portion of his post-draft news conference candidly explaining why.

If there was a common trait among the players the Lions drafted in April, it was their ability — or their desire — to “finish plays,” whether it was Ragnow and tackle Tyrell Crosby pancaking opponents or running back Kerryon Johnson picking up extra yards after contact in the SEC.

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Meanwhile, Quinn described at length his dismay over some of what he saw in the Lions’ 9-7 finish in 2017, when red-zone woes and an inability to convert in short-yardage situations probably cost his team a playoff berth. (“All those critical situations — like, it’s goal-line, and we can’t run the ball half a yard — that bothered me,” Quinn said.) He went on to promise “we’ll have a very physical training camp,” which is exactly what we’ve seen thus far, with practices running nearly 2½ hours each day, or about 45 minutes longer than recent years.

“You want to make practices harder than the games,” Quinn said, “so the games come easy.”

That’s hardly a novel concept, the injury risks notwithstanding. But it is a bit of a departure from the last four years under Jim Caldwell, whose no-nonsense approach was largely welcomed by players during his tenure in Detroit. Particularly the veterans, who appreciated both the shorter practices — more precision, less pummeling — and the shared respect. As Calvin Johnson told me in what proved to be his final training camp in 2015, “Not to knock any other coaches, but if I had him my whole career, man, I’d be playing 20 years like Jerry Rice.”

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Not to knock Caldwell now, but things are noticeably different this summer.

The Lions began camp, as most teams do, practicing without pads Friday and Saturday, but even then the message was clear: Both those sessions started with goal-line drills. Once the pads came on, it was more of the same, with rapid-fire, half-line run drills, some intense 1-on-1 pass rush battles — a boisterous Patricia was right in the middle of those with his critiques — and a modified Oklahoma drill that raised a few eyebrows, even among the players. Marvin Jones said he hadn’t seen one of those in years, going back to the start of his career in Cincinnati, but added, “It’s definitely physical. And that’s what we want to be: a physical team.”

Backfield push

That’s not what they have been, though. The Lions ranked last in the NFL in rushing in two of the last three seasons, averaging a dismal 3.6 yards per carry over that span. And when you ask running backs coach David Walker about the offseason goals — or the notable additions of LeGarrette Blount and rookie Johnson, whose reverse-field touchdown run late in Monday’s practice was the highlight of the day — he doesn’t waste time dancing around the subject.

“It has to get better for our team to have the success we want,” Walker says. “It has to.”

Success doesn’t mean a seismic shift in offensive philosophy, especially with Matthew Stafford at quarterback. It doesn’t mean 2,000 yards or 500 carries, either. But it does require a run game that’s at least efficient, and for the Lions to get from where they were to where they need to be, it starts up front.

With the kind of blocking we saw on a goal-line drill Monday, as Ragnow, who has been impressive early in camp, teamed up with left tackle Taylor Decker to open a huge hole for Blount to practically jog into the end zone untouched.

And it starts here in camp, where the Lions certainly have hit the ground running. There is more conditioning work written into Patricia’s practice script, as many have noted. There’s the occasional punishment, too. Decker was guilty of a false start during one team practice period Monday, so Patricia had him jog to the goalpost and back. On two other occasions, after fumbled snaps by Stafford and backup Matt Cassel, the entire offensive unit ran the length of the field.

Practice typically ends with another intense full-team drill, and Monday offered more of the same.

“A lot of times in practice I’m trying to wear them out,” Patricia said. “I’ll put some of the more difficult periods at the end of practice where they’re probably the most fatigued — or tired mentally, especially. You try to see how many mistakes they make in that situation.”

Because make no mistake, the hard part for the Lions hasn’t been what happens on the practice field the last few years. It’s what comes after.