By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Only so many conclusions can be drawn from watching a team’s defense practice against that same team’s offense.
In hopes of preventing injuries, coaches instruct players to minimize contact and stay off the ground – a practical approach that completely defies the nature of the game of football.
Despite the limited vista offered by practices, however, Detroit Lions coaches and players like what they have seen from the defense so far.
“I really like the group’s competitive spirit,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Tuesday. “When we get out there and have a drill against the offense, they don’t like to lose … Even when we’ve gone six days in a row, whatever it is, they’ve done a great job in terms of really competing, working to get better, helping each other out, and that’s really a great sign.”
Even if practices can only reveal so much about a defense, they might reveal a little more when the offense is one of the most potent in the league. Between wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, running backs Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick, and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron, the Lions offense enjoys a plethora of options. Working daily to combat such a multifaceted attack could eventually pay dividends for Detroit’s defense.
“I think it’ll make us very strong,” Lions linebacker and 2013 team captain Stephen Tulloch said. “Obviously we have a lot of talent on our offense, and I don’t think every team has the talent that we have. Obviously going against our offense every day, putting our work in, kind of show you where you’re at as a team. Then again, when lights come on, it’s a different story, so we’ve got to put it all together and get ready to play the game.”
Head coach Jim Caldwell said the defense’s identity is still developing, surfacing more and more as players learn the system so they can react instinctively to situations rather than take time to think through them. What happens Saturday in the team’s first preseason game, Caldwell said, will give an idea of where the defense is and what it is becoming.
Tulloch said fans can expect to see a better defense in 2014 than they saw in 2013.
“I think we could be a top defense,” Tulloch said. “I know last year we finished sixth against the run, kind of middle of the pack against the pass, and this year, we should be a top 10 defense. That’s our goal is to get better day in and day out, learn the ins and outs, understanding our coverages and our run fits and being able to put it all together.
“I think we have the personnel,” Tulloch added. “Our secondary’s better, our linebackers, our D-line is great. We have good players in good position to make good plays, and as long as we can stay healthy, I think the sky’s the limit for this defense.”
Tulloch said the team is anxious for Saturday’s exhibition, in part because the Lions get to face a former teammate in wide receiver Nate Burleson, a beloved figure in the locker room, a veteran known to the outside world for his willingness to give a quote about anything, his unbelievably extensive shoe collection and his car accident that was spurred by his reaching to stop a pizza box from falling off the passenger seat of his SUV.
Burleson returned to Detroit in the offseason to participate in Tulloch’s charity softball game, and Tulloch looks forward to talking with his friend again.
“It’ll be good to get out there against Nate Burleson and those guys and get after him and talk some, mess with him,” Tulloch said with a smile. “It’ll be fun.”
In the meantime, the Lions have three more practices this week, and Wednesday’s practice at Ford Field is free and open to the public. The same bag policy that applies during the regular season will be enforced. Fans can enter through Gates A, B and G, which open at 6:30 p.m.