Red zone a fun zone for T.J. Hockenson; head coach Matt Patricia looking for smooth operation in the first preseason game; with starting QBs likely to sit, Tom Savage using starting experience to strengthen backup role; three Lions rookies to watch not named Hockenson and Random Thoughts on Tom Brady, Romeo Okwara’s 2018 experience and Patricia’s emotion for the preseason opener.
Hockenson: The rookie tight end has shown that he can help the Lions in the red zone, an area where they struggled all of last season.
The Lions ranked 24th in touchdown percentage, converting 24 of 49 series that started inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns. Overall, Lions tight ends had only three TD catches on offense. All three were by Michael Roberts, who is no longer with the team. (Levine Toiolo had a fourth, on a throw from kicker Matt Prater on a fake field goal.)
Hockenson has looked good in camp, including the in the joint practices with the Patriots.
He’s looking forward to his first preseason game, and what he might contribute in the long haul in the red zone.
“It’s going to be cool, being at Ford Field,” Hockenson said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, just being in that environment with all the fans.
“But like I said, it’s just another day that we’ve got to get better. We’re going to do everything we can to get better than Wednesday. That’s the goal.”
He was asked about the comfort level he has shown in camp in the red zone.
“The red zone is a lot of fun,” he said. “We talk about ‘points or nothing.’ We want to get into the end zone and finish off the drive right. Going in there, it’s obviously condensed space. There are a lot of things you can do.
“There are a lot of one-on-one matchups. Especially in this league, there’s a lot of man (coverage) down there. There’s some zone, but not as much.”
“It’s a lot of fun trying to win at the line, win in the end zone – making a play.”
Smooth operation: Patricia is excited about the start of the preseason, but he wants his team to be in control. There’s a heavy rotation of players, and many are new to the Lions’ systems.
“That’s a big evaluation for us as we get into it – the operation of game day,” Patricia said. “None of us have done that in quite a long time, whether you’re a player or coach. There’ll be a lot of things that come up. We’ll have to try to get ahead of as many of them as we can.”
It can get hectic on the sidelines with the shuffle of players competing for starting jobs and roster spots at positions such as offensive guard, defensive line and cornerback.
QB, starters: Based on history, don’t expect Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford to play. Barring a change, that leaves it open to the backups to run the offenses of both teams.
QB, roles: Tom Savage’s starting experience – nine games with the Houston Texans (2014-17) -- gives him an edge over David Fales in the competition for the backup job to Stafford.
There’s a mindset that goes with the job, along with the trust factor with teammates that Savage wanted to build when he signed in April and can strengthen with a solid performance in the preseason.
“The first and most important thing is to earn the respect of the players,” Savage said. “The second is to learn the playbook. You can’t force it. You have to go out there and make plays. The other thing is holding yourself accountable with the guys.
“Starting experience ... you can’t replicate that feeling of being out there. I enjoyed every second of it. It’s going to be fun. You get to see some plays extended and hope to put some points on the board.
“On the sheet of paper you’re a backup, but you can’t prepare that way at all.”
The Lions have kept two quarterbacks on the 53-player roster the last three years. That makes every practice rep and preseason play important.
Lions rookie watch: It’s another step up in tempo, from training camp practice to a preseason game.
“The speed, intensity – all that picks up,” Patricia said. “That’s part of the evaluation as we go forward.”
They all get evaluated, but three 2019 draft picks to watch are linebacker Jahlani Tavai (second round), running back Ty Johnson (sixth round) and tight end Isaac Nauta.
Tavai has worked a lot with the first unit, and looked like he fit in from day one. Johnson has breakaway speed, but can he get through the holes to use it? And Nauta had a TD catch in last week’s scrimmage. He could add depth to a position that has been strengthened measurably since last season.
View photos from Day 11 of Detroit Lions Training Camp presented by Rocket Mortgage.
Tom Brady: Watching him practice for three days was an up-close look at a master honing his craft. The precision, control and preparation are amazing for a player any age, let alone a 42-year-old.
Romeo Okwara: The Lions’ defensive end and 2018 sack leader is an example of a secondary benefit of joint practices. The Lions saw him last year for two days of joint practices, followed by a preseason game. They claimed him when they saw him on waivers. History could repeat from the workouts with the Patriots.
Matt Patricia: On coaching a preseason game: “I love it. I love it all. Nothing better than gameday.”