DETROIT – The third episode of “Hard Knocks” featuring the Detroit Lions had a much happier ending than the second, but there are still plenty of reminders that Dan Campbell faces a steep uphill battle to change the organization’s culture.
HBO followed the Lions to Indianapolis last week for two days of practice and a preseason game against the Colts, and with each passing day of training camp, you can feel the stakes rising.
Here are my top highlights from Tuesday night’s episode.
Dan Campbell doesn’t fear ‘SOL’
We talked quite a bit about “Same Old Lions” culture in last week’s recap (read that here), and right on queue, Episode 3 began with Campbell addressing it head-on.
Unlike previous coaches, Campbell hasn’t shied away from acknowledging the team’s history -- and I think fans really appreciate that.
Sometimes, to fix a deep-rooted issue, you first have to acknowledge it, and Campbell does it almost every episode.
This week, he talked about how the Atlanta Falcons didn’t beat the Lions in the first preseason game -- the Lions beat themselves. That’s one of the pillars of SOL.
“To me, that’s all that s---, man, all the stuff that’s been here that has kept us from winning,” Campbell said. “All the little, ‘Oh, man, but we did everything right, man. We had the time of possession. We had all this, but we didn’t keep them out of the end zone.’”
An ESPN article published Tuesday morning about the NFL teams most likely to improve their win totals this season broke down how the Lions blew game after game after game in crunch time last season. They gave up buzzer-beater field goals of 66 and 54 yards. They missed a 48-yarder in overtime. They allowed Andy Dalton to lead a 17-play game-winning drive.
It wasn’t just last year’s team, either. The problem has been engrained in every fiber of those Honolulu Blue jerseys, and it’s not going to vanish overnight. That’s why Campbell talks about it with his team so frequently. That’s why he walks around in an “anti-fragile” T-shirt. That’s why he had “grit” spray painted in massive letters inside the Allen Park facility.
Goal line defense
The producers had to love the way the Lions’ practice narrative translated to the preseason game. Heck, Tuesday’s last segments practically wrote themselves.
After a tough first day of practice in Indianapolis, highlighted by the running backs playing so poorly that Duce Staley lost his voice, the defense came in to save the day (for once).
Austin Bryant, Aidan Hutchinson, and the entire front seven dominated the Colts offense in goal line situations. Campbell, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, and linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard were as happy as we’ve seen them since the start of the series.
That is, until the defense did it again in the actual game.
You could see it on Campbell’s face when the Lions were one play -- two short yards -- away from blowing yet another close game.
“No way,” rookie Chase Lucas said after the Colts scored with 38 seconds left to claw within a point. “No way. There’s no way. There’s no way. There’s no way.”
“What the f---?” Sheppard asked -- a question Lions fans have asked all-too-often on Sunday afternoons in the fall.
Luckily, the goal line defense came to the rescue once again. John Cominsky got pressure off the edge and Cedric Boswell and Saivion Smith were in coverage to force the incomplete pass.
An inability to get pressure crushed the Lions defensively in 2021. The front seven’s performance in Indianapolis is, at the very least, an early sign of improvement.
‘Winning is everything’
Hard Knocks is fun. Campbell is endearing. Everyone in Detroit would run through a brick wall for Jamaal Williams.
But at the end of the day, that stuff doesn’t really matter. There’s only one thing Lions fans really want: wins. For once, they just want to see this team win.
It was refreshing to hear the players acknowledge that after Detroit’s first preseason win since Aug. 24, 2018.
“Winning is happy,” Williams said.
“Winning is fun,” Taylor Decker said.
“Winning is everything. That’s why we play the sport.”
“Winning is everything.”
“Winning is everything.”
“Everything. Winning is everything.”
“There is nothing like f------ winning, man,” Campbell said to the team after the game. “There is nothing like winning, and I’m telling you right now, it doesn’t matter if it’s freaking dominoes, it’s Spades, it’s Booray, it’s croquet, it’s f------ chess, it’s preseason, a-- kicking -- it does not matter, men. Winning is winning, and it feels good, man.
“We needed to taste that, cause that’s where we’re going.”
It was fun watching some of the players who struggled in the first preseason game bounce back and play major roles in last week’s victory.
David Blough, whose ill-timed fumble was featured heavily in Episode 2, threw a clutch touchdown pass to Tom Kennedy as the clock hit zero in the first half.
Campbell took a risk going for the touchdown over a field goal, and Blough came through. It was important for him to do so after what happened in crunch time that first game.
In two games, Blough has completed 34 of 50 pass attempts (68%) for 217 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Obinna Eze was all over the third Hard Knocks episode. Early on, we saw him struggle in the first preseason game and run out of gas during the early practices. But late against the Colts, he played a key role in an 18-play touchdown drive that ate up almost 10 minutes of clock.
Linebacker still feels like the greatest weakness on the roster, and the depth chart is fuzzy, at best, as the regular season looms.
Alex Anzalone was held out of the second preseason game because, as Sheppard put it, he’s pretty much a lock to make the roster.
But who will fill out the rest of the spots?
Rookie camp sensation Malcolm Rodriguez wasn’t drafted until the sixth round, but Sheppard told him outright that he’s in the mix for a starting position.
“Amazing opportunity for the rest of the room,” Sheppard told the rest of the linebackers.
Derrick Barnes started alongside Rodriguez, but beyond that, it doesn’t even seem like Sheppard knows exactly how his rotation will play out.
Kennedy didn’t get his own segment during the show, but he sure made an impression during the game.
The 26-year-old out of Bryant scored two touchdowns on five catches. Through two games, he’s caught 13 passes for 132 yards.
For a guy who only made six catches in 12 games as a rookie last season, Kennedy is making the right kind of impression in camp.
Thanks to Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, and D.J. Chark, nobody is really talking about how thin the Lions are at receiver. Kennedy is looking to capitalize on that opportunity.