If not for COVID-19 and the cancelation of the preseason, the Lions would have played their first preseason game this past Thursday night against the Patriots, potentially after a week's worth of joint practices. Coaches would have spent Friday evaluating the tape and assessing where the team was after the first week of real competition against an opponent.
Of course, none of that happened. The Lions were in Allen Park all week preparing for the ramp-up portion of camp, which starts next week with the introduction of padded practices.
Due to the loss of the preseason, head coach Matt Patricia may have to change up the way the Lions operate practice during training camp to make sure they're ready for Week 1 vs. Chicago. That will likely include more live periods with tackling than we've seen in past camp practices.
"That's one of the biggest issues we've got right now," Patricia said in a Zoom call Friday. "Just trying to get those tackling fundamentals full speed and live. We do kind of mix in some live periods when we get to training camp, certainly down on the goal line, and we usually do that relatively quick.
"One of the things we have had to evaluate is we're going to need to tackle somebody before we get to that first game. You need to feel it, you need to see it, you need to see the speed of it. The question is, how do we do that in a safe environment?"
Patricia said the solution might be to put players in more in-line tackling situations where the collision and the contact isn't as great and it's a little bit safer play than the more space and speed contact. It's also important for Patricia to start to install some of that into practice at a point where players feel comfortable doing it safely and at a point where everyone has adapted to padded practice and being in equipment. It's also important to be far enough away from the first game where players have an opportunity to recover from it.
Patricia consulted some of his coaching colleagues in the collegiate ranks to see how they do it. There's no preseason in college football, and the first time the college players see someone in another jersey is Week 1 of the regular season.
"The one thing about football that's a little bit different than every other sport is that at some point you need to get hit and you need to do some hitting," Patricia said. "That's just a part of the game."
Patricia hopes to get into pads next week and slowly build up to a point where in a couple weeks, they ramp up to some live tackling periods and maybe even do some scrimmaging so they can evaluate live situations.
Special teams is also an area Patricia says will be particularly hard to evaluate without some live scenarios.
"It's really hard to simulate the speed of special teams in practice," he said. "And we use those preseason games to get special teams reps during a normal training camp, so that'll be a big adjustment for us. We're really going to have to push that as hard as we can to get a feel for that so it's not the first time against Chicago."
All of it is a big challenge for Patricia and the coaching staff. How will they walk the line of implementing more live reps to help prepare for Week 1, while also staying on top of the health aspect of it?
"In the game of football, the only way to get better is practice and that's first and foremost," Patricia said. "It's not like the other sports where you have a lot of games to go out and play and you can get better by playing games. We don't have that luxury and certainly without preseason games it's even less. So for us, we have to improve during practice."