'Real football' arrives: Lions practice in pads for first time

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions tight end Levine Toilolo goes up against tight end Luke Wilson during drills at training camp.

Allen Park — When the Detroit Lions veterans reported to training camp on Thursday, Paul Pasqualoni was asked what he knew about his defense. You could boil down the 68-year-old coordinator’s thoughts to “not much.”

Pasqualoni wasn’t being flippant or dismissive toward the question. He just didn’t feel it was fair to comment on the abilities of his players having never watched them perform in pads firsthand.

And as his counterpart on offense, Jim Bob Cooter, explained, some guys perform better when fully suited up.

“Some of the techniques can change, some of the players are better when they put the pads on,” Cooter said. “They’re not built for non-padded football. At the end of the day we are going to play padded football. So it’s a good opportunity for us to get better at some of those things that are best made to get better with pads on.

“There will be young players we don’t know a lot about in pads. That’s really exciting this time of year. Somebody always stands out when you put the pads on that you maybe didn’t expect when you don’t have the pads on.”

More: Camp observations: Lions rookie Frank Ragnow dominates

On Sunday, Pasqualoni, Cooter and the rest of the Lions coaching staff got their first true evaluation of the roster.

While more is made of players reporting to camp, the first padded practice might be the truest indication football season is back. The common sentiment echoed across the roster is pads means “real football,” and the hunger for contact showed in the gleam in the eyes of some of the team’s younger players, including linebacker Jarrad Davis, cornerback Teez Tabor and rookie offensive lineman Frank Ragnow.

First-year coach Matt Patricia took it a step further, sounding like a kid on Christmas morning.

“This is obviously the most exciting day of the year,” Patricia said. “The non-padded days are great, to work in a team environment, get out there and orchestrate it all. But this is what you love.”

Patricia also underscored the oft-ignored change in conditioning that comes along with players wearing pads.

“The biggest part also that people don’t understand is the quicker we can get in pads — there’s a difference between in conditioning and being in football shape,” he said. “You hear that term and what does that mean? Well, if you’re out running around on a track and you have no sort of restriction around your lungs and your chest cavity, and it can just expand normally, that’s one thing.

"But once you tighten those pads down, your lungs can only expand so far and your chest cavity can only get so much air in. It’s almost like you have to retrain yourself to be able to get to a higher conditioning level because of that different situation with the equipment on.”

More: LeGarrette Blount leaves practice, Marvin Jones returns for Lions

Patricia’s practices have routinely focused on conditioning, incorporating far more running than predecessor Jim Caldwell utilized, and the team wasted little time generating contact through a wide variety of drills.

The ground game, a long source of consternation for the franchise, seemed to be a focus. The Lions worked tight ends against edge rushers in a zone-running drill, half-line and full-line run blocking, and pitted receivers against defensive backs in the open field — all critical components to consistently running the ball.

In his pre-practice comments, Patricia put an emphasis on safety and fundamentals. He said he wanted players to stay off the ground as much as possible. But he also noted the importance of selectively incorporating live tackling into the routine, which the team did, closing Sunday’s practice with a live goal-line segment.

“I think when you go to the ground in certain situations there is just a professional way to try to do it,” Patricia said. “The other part of it is, at some point, you have to go live. You have to be able to experience that both offensively and defensively because you don’t want to do it the first time in a game. You have to be able to get in good position.”

The roster evaluation process got a lot clearer this weekend, but the Lions are a long way from having to make decisions. Training camp will resume next week, with joint practices and preseason games with the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants fast approaching.