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Lions notes: New regime sees something in long-time backup Mike Ford

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — For the past two seasons, Justin Coleman manned the increasing important nickel cornerback position for the Detroit Lions. But in the weeks after the team cut Coleman in a cap-savings move in March, the replacement plan was unclear. 

Eventually, the Lions signed Corn Elder, a solid veteran with 30 games of experience the past three seasons, to seemingly fill the void. But for the first few days of training camp, it hasn't been Elder covering the slot with the first-team defense, it's been Mike Ford. 

Ford, entering his fourth season with the Lions after originally signing with the club as an undrafted free agent in 2018, has largely served as a backup outside cornerback through the early stages of his career. He's appeared in 31 games, making seven starts, during that stretch, while also serving as a key special teams contributor. 

Lions cornerback Mike Ford keeps his eyes on the ball during drills.  Detroit Lions training camp in Allen Park, Michigan on July 28, 2021.

But the Lions clearly envisioned a new role for Ford when they signed him to a new one-year deal this offseason. 

Ford said it's "super exciting" to have a new coaching staff see something in him and he's focused on learning the different techniques and route concepts that go along with the position change. 

"Last year, we played a lot more press (coverage," Ford said. "It's just different. Sometimes I'm up there, sometimes I'm off. It's about figuring out what I'm going to see when I'm off and what I'm going to see when I'm in press. The route concepts are very different inside compared to outside."

Typically, nickel corners are smaller, but Ford checks in at six-foot, 198 pounds with above-average speed. On paper, his frame could give him a unique advantage operating inside. 

Safety Tracy Walker believes Ford has looked like a natural fit at the spot. 

"To see him be so comfortable and relaxed and be able to understand this defense and be able to make plays, man, it's like I said, a great thing to see," Walker said. "...He's big. He's athletic. He's physical. I mean, he can tackle. He does everything that you want from a nickel. And he's smart. He understands what's going on. He understands defense. He understands offenses. Right now, he's making a great adjustment and he's doing very well at it." 

Ouch!

Coach Dan Campbell called them softball-sized calcium deposits, but Lions defensive tackle John Penisini had a more detailed, more colorful description of the growths he had surgically removed from his shoulders this offseason. 

"I don’t know the scientific term for it, but it was like a bunch of fat in there, just all bottled up," Penisini said. "Took it out and it looked like chicken hearts."

Um, gross. 

Penisini tried to downplay the impact of the growths on his performance as a rookie, noting his job is far more dependent on his lower body, but by the end of last season he was unable to lift weights or do a pushup. That inability to work out as he normally would also caused him to gain more weight than he wanted. 

 "I got fat," he said.

Now, Penisini claims he's back to 100% and is looking to build upon a rookie year where he exceeded expectations. 

"There’s a lot of things I can do better like pass rushing and stuff, reading keys, watching formations," he said. 

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New schedule

This will mark the first year the NFL will play a 17-game regular season. Correlating with the addition of that extra game, the league reduced teams' preseason slate from four to three contests. 

Typically, the first half of the third preseason game acted as a dress rehearsal for the regular season with most starters playing every snap of the opening two quarters. Campbell is still working out how he will approach the new setup, not wanting to be unprepared for the season opener against San Francisco in September. 

"All summer I have gone back and forth," Campbell said. "My gosh, we’re a new staff, have new players, everything, and you want them to get in the flow of a true game with each other before you get to the season. Even between preseason game three and when you play, you’re talking about two-and-a-half weeks or whatever that is. That’s a long time.

"You’d hate to get into the game and be like, we finally found our rhythm in the third quarter against San Francisco," Campbell continued. "My gosh, we would be down. You know how it is, but then you’re trying to weigh where you’re at, what you feel like. I think a lot of it is going to be predicated on where we are at on the roster injury-wise. Hopefully we’re healthy and all of that and feel good. How do we feel about our practices and how we’ve looked? I think a lot of it is just going to have to be how myself feels and the staff feels with where we’re at. What do we truly feel like we need?"

Detroit's Romeo Okwara works through the pylons.

Card sharks

A new addition to Detroit's practice routine has been placards on the sideline that let the defense know what personnel groupings the offense is utilizing on a down-to-down basis. 

For example, if the offense has one running back and two tight ends on the field, an assistant coach will hold up a sign with the number "12." 

While more commonly seen in college football, Campbell believes it should help his players process their situation more quickly, allowing them to play faster. 

“We’ll do that during the game, too," Campbell said. "It just helps them. You have your own personnel in the game with your call, but once that comes in, it really helps the secondary and the linebackers know, ‘OK, they have their base personnel in, they have their sub (package).’ ... I think it really clears things up when you truly know without having to try and search for it."

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jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers