Lions eager to test themselves against Steelers

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Defensive tackle Louis Palmer runs the rings, chasing tennis balls, during defensive line drills Monday.

Allen Park – It’s time to take the show on the road.

Starting Tuesday, Detroit Lions training camp is relocating for Latrobe, Pa., for three days as the team holds joint practices with the Pittsburgh Steelers leading up to the teams’ preseason opener Friday night at Heinz Field.

The change-of-pace sessions will give Lions players an opportunity to test their mettle against an opponent other than the teammates they’ve battled throughout the offseason and will provide the coaching staff and front office an extended evaluation period.

“The great thing is now we get a chance to work against someone who hasn’t been watching your scheme the entire time,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “Also (it’s) a very, very good football team. We’ll do some great evaluations and that’s a huge part of it.”

It’s the first time the Lions have held joint practices with another franchise since 2000, when the team traveled to Wofford College to work with the Carolina Panthers.

The opportunity to share the field with the Steelers this year was aided by the relationship between Caldwell and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The two worked together as assistants under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay during the 2001 season. Caldwell went on to follow Tony Dungy to Indianapolis, while Tomlin stayed in Tampa Bay for four more seasons.

Traditionally known as a defensive powerhouse, the Steelers have been defined by their explosive offense in recent years, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.

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Multiple Lions defenders are eager to see how they stack up against the trio of elite playmakers.

“Going up against a guy like Ben Roethlisberger, who is a great competitor, he’s been great for a long time in this league and I’m definitely looking forward to the opportunity to go up against him,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said.

The Lions’ projected starter at middle linebacker also wants to show he can handle the Steelers workhorse running back in both the ground and passing game.

But Brown might be the biggest challenge.

The Central Michigan product has rapidly developed into one of the NFL’s elite wideouts. He tied for the league lead in receptions last season, was second in receiving yards, second in explosive plays (20 or more yards) and fourth in yards after the catch.

“He's one of the top guys,” safety Glover Quin said. “He's a very explosive guy, very quick, really good after the catch, great rapport with (Ben) Roethlisberger. He's one of the top, so getting to go against him this week is going to be good work for us, good work for him and look forward to it.”

But the top focus for the Lions should be on the trenches, specifically Detroit’s offensive line. The young group has been inconsistent during training camp as the team waits for the chemistry to form between the individual talents.

“Yeah, I think that’s certainly a key area that we’ll be watching,” Caldwell said.

While the practices will unquestionably be valuable for both organizations, the concern in these settings is the potential for skirmishes.

“They're always fun until somebody starts acting crazy, then everybody starts acting crazy,” Quin.

Caldwell, whose calm demeanor is typically reflected by his roster, seemed less concerned.

“I think both teams have done a great job of keeping their composure and those kinds of things, because I think it’s extremely important,” Caldwell said. “I don’t foresee any issues.”