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WHO: Detroit Lions
WHERE: Allen Park, Michigan
WHEN: Sunday, July 29
HOW: Flew from Minneapolis
ALLEN PARK, Michigan—Matt Patricia was about 15 minutes late for his pre-practice press conference. "Sorry I'm late, I owe you guys a lap," he joked to reporters. "Hey, it's full pads today. Do you guys know we put pads on today? Are you excited?" Patricia looked around the room for reporters to match his enthusiasm, and had to have been disappointed by our collective lack of excitement. Detroit's new head coach was totally amped for Sunday’s practice, where his team would finally put on pads for the first time under his watch. He couldn’t contain his energy, and it showed in his press conference and on the field during practice.
Patricia is a very hands-on head coach, and throughout practice he shouted feedback to individual players and directed position drills. At one point in practice, Patricia ran a drill with the tight ends going one-on-one against defensive ends in run blocking. The drill took place on the part of the field right in front of the media, so we got to see and hear Patricia’s head-coaching style up close. Patricia is not a sit back and delegate kind of guy. “He’s always coaching,” said rookie offensive lineman Frank Ragnow. “Sometimes I feel like a head coach is more of a manager, more of a CEO, but he is coaching every single position whenever he can.”
Sunday’s physical practice featured one-on-one pass rush reps and a modified version of the classic Oklahoma drill, where players get up from the ground at the same time and the offensive player tries to beat the defensive player one-on-one.
Patricia said he will build the players toward tackling to the ground at some point in upcoming practices, which marks a big difference from his predecessor, Jim Caldwell, who rarely had live tackling in practice.
It’s clear Patricia has changed the Lions’ culture, and the team hopes there’s another renaissance happening inside the running back room. Detroit’s run game can’t really get any worse, after ranking dead last in the league with 1,221 rushing yards—just 76.3 per game. And for the fourth straight year, the Lions did not have a 100-yard rusher in a single game. So they signed ex-Eagle and Patriot LeGarrette Blount, and drafted Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn in the second round to provide a spark to last year’s stagnant starters Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah.
One problem for the Lions is that they’ve used plenty of resources on running backs in the last decade, but find themselves in this position anyway. They drafted Jahvid Best in the first round in 2010. He played 22 games until concussions prematurely ended his career. The next season, the Lions drafted Mike Leshoure in the second round. He missed his rookie season with a torn Achilles and was cut in 2014. In 2015, Detroit drafted Abdullah in the second round, hoping he’d be the guy to save the run game. Abdullah is now competing for a spot on the roster after losing his starting job halfway through the 2017 season.
Johnson, the rookie, is already media-trained and is careful not to discuss Detroit’s struggles last season and how he might be the one to turn the ship around. “Last year is last year, we don't really focus on that,” he said. “We focus on this year. I'm back to the bottom of the totem pole. I have to earn respect.”
In goal line drills Sunday, Johnson had back-to-back touchdowns, including one where he made a jump cut and burst into the end zone. Johnson said he’s enjoyed learning from LeGarrette Blount, who has won back-to-back Super Bowl titles with the Patriots and Eagles. Blount has been a helpful veteran addition to the position group. “He's seen it with his own eyes, the teams that make it and the teams that don't,” Johnson said. “You can't buy experience. No round talent has the experience of a nine-year vet.”
Johnson said he doesn’t feel the pressure, but team execs must be feeling it. The Lions cannot afford to waste another high pick on a running back.
As for Abdullah, he said he doesn’t mind competing for a roster spot. “I love to compete, because I am the youngest of nine kids, so I’ve always competed with my siblings to eat, to have fun, to have my parents’ attention.”
“OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT": Frank Ragnow, the Lions’ first round pick, is an avid outdoorsman. He runs an Instagram and YouTube account called Grizzly Man Outdoors. Before training camp, he spent a week off the grid at his family’s cabin in Northwest Ontario. The only way to access the cabin is by boat or plane. Ragnow drives seven hours from his family’s home in Chanhassen, Minnesota, then drives a boat an hour and a half across one lake and portages to the next lake to get to his cabin. Ragnow’s cabin is so remote that he won’t even disclose the names of the lakes. “I don't want anyone to know about my secret lakes,” he said. Only eight cabins are built on the large lake, because Ragnow says the Canadian government shut down the building of any new property around it. “It was a cleanse of the mind, no phone service, nothing,” he said. “I’d live up there if I could.” Matt Stafford would probably prefer you to live in Detroit, Frank.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: The starting offensive line appears to be set, with Graham Glasgow at center and the rookie Ragnow at left guard. Pass protection was a big weakness last season. Matt Stafford was sacked a career-high 47 times, and his health and longevity depend on this unit.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: Nickelback. Jamal Agnew, Quandre Diggs and Nevin Lawson are all in play for the spot. Detroit feels good about its secondary, it’s just a matter of where to slot each guy around left cornerback Darius Slay and free safety Glover Quin. Diggs can also play safety, which would give the team more depth at that spot.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: Principal owner Martha Firestone Ford took in practice on Sunday, and fans cheered for her as she left the field.
PARTING THOUGHTS: The Lions have the media view practice from an elevated observation deck. It’s nice because you’re able to sit down and rest your feet instead of standing for 2.5 hours, but it also has it’s own unique risks. The deck is located directly behind the extra-narrow goal posts where the kickers practice and a few dead-on center footballs came hurtling toward reporters. One ball missed a reporter by a few inches and came smashing into the back of the stands. Is this covered under worker’s comp?