NFL Nation: Tahir Whitehead

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN).

Play: No flag for a helmet-to-helmet hit by Chicago Bears safety Ryan Mundy on Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: As Matt Ryan's pass approached White, Mundy took a textbook 2014 approach, initiating contact with his right shoulder and first striking White's left shoulder. At live speed, however, White's head snapped back -- a tell-tale action that routinely draws flags against modern NFL defenders.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
Todd Kirkland/Icon SportswireRyan Mundy wasn't penalized for this hit Sunday on Roddy White.
The assumption is that helmet-to-helmet contact causes a head-snap. On cue, Anderson's crew dropped a late flag. But after discussion, Anderson waved it off and said there was no foul because the "contact was with the shoulder."

Watching the play in slow motion revealed that, after the shoulder contact, the crown of Mundy's head struck the lower left side of White's helmet. White qualified for defenseless player protection under NFL rules -- "a receiver attempting to catch a pass" -- and Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b) prohibits "forcibly hitting [the] head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder even if the initial contact is lower than the player's neck."

A note added to that rule states it "does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or helmet in the course of a conventional tackle."

The past few years have conditioned us to expect a penalty on this kind of hit, even though it was once a standard part of legal defensive play. White was defenseless, Mundy made at least some contact with the helmet and White was slow to get up.

But was the contact "incidental?" Former NFL vice president of officiating, Mike Pereira, thought it was and indicated as such on the Fox broadcast. Former NFL referee Jim Daopoulos, on the other hand, tweeted that the hit "is a foul and the flag should not have been picked up."

Anderson's explanation indicated he hadn't seen any helmet-to-helmet contact, so it's difficult to know whether he considered the "incidental" exception. Based on the rules cited, you can make an argument for "incidental" contact even if it wasn't at the root of Anderson's decision. Still, Mundy and the Bears should consider themselves fortunate. These days, any contact forceful enough to cause a head-snap usually leads to a penalty.


Play: Offsetting penalties overturn a Minnesota Vikings turnover against the Detroit Lions
Referee: John Parry
Analysis: Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels fumbled after a 14-yard return in the second quarter. The ball was recovered by the Lions' Tahir Whitehead.

After the play, Parry's crew sorted through three separate penalties. Two were on the Vikings: holding by Shaun Prater and an illegal block on a player Parry announced as No. 47. (There is no 47 on the Vikings' roster.) In addition, the Lions' Julian Stanford was called for illegal use of hands.

The NFL rule book has an entire section devoted to offsetting penalties on a change of possession. The end result was a replay of the down, even though the Vikings had committed two of the three penalties and the Lions had recovered Sherels' fumble.

Why the inequity? The two-word answer is "clean hands."

Here is what Rule 14, Section 5, Article 2 says about a double foul with a change of possession: "[T]he team last gaining possession will keep the ball after enforcement for its foul, provided it did not foul prior to gaining possession ('clean hands'). If the team last in possession does not have "clean hands" when it establishes possession, the penalties offset, and the down is replayed on the previous spot."

In other words, the Lions didn't keep the ball because Stanford committed his penalty before Whitehead recovered the fumble. The Lions didn't have "clean hands" prior to gaining possession, and it was irrelevant to this rule that the Vikings had committed two penalties to the Lions' one. Here's hoping for better hygiene next time.


Play: Unsportsmanlike conduct on Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes for … what?
Referee: Walt Coleman
Analysis: In the first quarter, the Bills' defense stopped New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley for no gain on third-and-1. Hughes celebrated with teammates, at one point reaching over the pile to slap teammate Ty Powell's helmet as Ridley rose from the ground.

Coleman called Hughes for unsportsmanlike conduct, with no further explanation, to give the Patriots a first down. (The extended possession did not result in points.) Why would a player be penalized for hitting his own teammate's helmet? There are a few possibilities, although none are immediately apparent when watching the replay.

Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(b) prohibits "using abusive, threatening or insulting languages or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials or representatives of the league." Did Hughes use a word or phrase toward Powell that Coleman's crew interpreted as "abusive, threatening or insulting?" In addition, Article 1(c) prohibits "using baiting or taunting acts or word that engender ill will between teams." Hughes' helmet blocks any visual view of whether he was saying anything, let alone something that qualifies here.

Meanwhile, Article 1(d) prohibits "prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations," defined as a player continuing "to celebrate after a warning from an official." If Hughes was warned for what seemed to be a short-lived celebration, it's not visible on the replay.

Ridley had to redirect himself slightly to get around Hughes' arms as he rose from the ground. Was that enough to qualify as an "abusive" gesture? I would think not. Nor should it qualify under Article 1(a), which prohibits "throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made."

Absent a more specific ruling from the NFL, the likeliest explanation: Coleman's crew thought Hughes either smacked Ridley's helmet or was trying to. Otherwise, the call is difficult to explain.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Monday afternoon, Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he would not speak on who some of his starters were until the team released a depth chart.

The Lions have done that, and potentially revealed some opening-game starters. This, however, remains an unofficial depth chart that the Lions media relations staff puts together, not one given out by the coaching staff.

Here are some of the notable things:
 

DETROIT -- A week ago, Jonte Green was picked on by Oakland during the Raiders’ game-winning drive. On Friday, he didn’t see any time until the fourth quarter against Jacksonville.

In his short work Friday, the cornerback battling for a spot on the roster ended up with a big play. Green picked off a Ricky Stanzi pass on the Jaguars’ second-to-last drive to secure a 13-12 win for Detroit -- its third straight game decided by a single point.

Here are some other thoughts from the Lions’ third preseason game:
  • Tahir Whitehead received the surprise start over Ashlee Palmer at strongside linebacker Friday night and took advantage. The third-year pro from Temple had four tackles in the first two series and ended up around the ball the entire game. Already likely on the roster due to his special-teams skills, he has been trying to make a push to show he can be an NFL linebacker, too. He took a step toward that against the Jaguars.
  • George Johnson received valuable chances while Ezekiel Ansah was injured. Now that Ansah is back, at least in a limited role, Johnson is still making as many plays as possible. Johnson sacked Chad Henne in the first half and had at least one more really strong pressure. He is also consistently on the Lions’ nickel pass-rush unit at defensive end. Seeing him play this much with the first group bodes well for his chances to make the roster. He also showed up on special-teams units throughout the game, so he can be versatile there, too.
  • Quarterback Matthew Stafford was 10-of-16 for 98 yards and an interception. He was really good on some throws but fell into the old habit of forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson on others -- including the pass he had intercepted. Stafford moved well in the pocket though, and did well to evade Jacksonville's rush.
  • The Lions should be pleased with their pass rush against Jacksonville. Johnson and Devin Taylor picked up sacks and there were numerous other quarterback pressures -- including a roughing-the-passer call on Ndamukong Suh that earned a flag. That some of the pressure came from linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Bill Bentley is another sign of the type of blitzing the Lions are going to do this season.
  • Hello, penalties. The Lions brought in Jim Caldwell to instill discipline and cut down on penalties. The Lions failed there Friday, committing 15 penalties for 131 yards -- not the statement a team preaching discipline wanted to make. Detroit had 16 penalties for 106 yards in the first two games combined.
  • It was not a good night for George Winn. He saw some running back reps with the first team, but also committed his second fumble of the preseason. For a player trying to make the roster as the last running back, that won’t help his cause. His competition, Mikel Leshoure, didn’t do a ton but did have a 30-yard run in the fourth quarter. Leshoure then fumbled on the next play.
DETROIT -- The Detroit Lions will be without one defensive starter and a key defensive reserve Friday night against Jacksonville.

Safety James Ihedigbo and linebacker Kyle Van Noy will be sitting out against the Jaguars along with rookie wide receiver TJ Jones.

More interesting, though, might be some of the starter replacements. Isa Abdul-Quddus will start at safety in place of Ihedigbo instead of Don Carey, perhaps signifying Abdul-Quddus' move up the depth chart. Tahir Whitehead is starting at Sam linebacker in place of Ashlee Palmer in another surprising move.

Corey Hilliard will be at right tackle over LaAdrian Waddle, perhaps a sign that the vet could end up winning that job. Also, Devin Taylor will start at defensive end in place of Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah is active and is expected to play, but will likely be limited in his snaps.

Lions Camp Report: Day 6

August, 2, 2014
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • The Lions had a scrimmage Saturday during their yearly family day, dividing the roster into the first-team offense and second-team defense on one side and the second-team offense and first-team defense on the other. The first-team offense and defense had all the typical players save Calvin Johnson, who did not practice Saturday. That wasn’t surprising considering the Lions’ focus on keeping their star as fresh as possible. In their daily switch, LaAdrian Waddle lined up with the first team at right tackle and Corey Hilliard with the second team, but that competition between two players who will make the roster continues. Defensively, Tahir Whitehead received a lot of time at linebacker spelling Stephen Tulloch.
  • Big day for Eric Ebron, who caught a really long pass from Matthew Stafford and appeared to be more confident on the field than he has at any point this camp. It’s still going to be a learning process for him for a bit and there will certainly be mistakes, but Saturday was encouraging. Lions coach Jim Caldwell also seemed comfortable with Ebron’s progress as he learns the multitude of spots he is expected to line up at this fall. Ebron’s play was one of the highlights for the Lions’ offense of the scrimmage considering his issues with drops.
  • The Lions had some issues snapping the ball when Dominic Raiola was not part of the scrimmage. Both Darren Keyton – playing with the first group – and Travis Swanson had bad snaps to quarterbacks, causing issues. In Swanson’s case, it led to a fumble recovery for a touchdown by rookie Larry Webster, one of the better plays the defensive end has made during camp. While Swanson is still expected to be the backup center when everything shakes out a month from now, those issues amplified the importance of Raiola and his presence again this season.
  • Detroit’s cornerback situation behind Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis could get interesting. Jonte Green had his best day of camp thus far, breaking up two passes intended for receiver Ryan Broyles, who has not run with the first team much this camp. Chris Greenwood struggled again Saturday as well as those two potentially compete for one roster spot. Slay, Mathis, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and probably Cassius Vaughn appear to be ahead of both Green and Greenwood on the depth chart – although Lawson is going to mostly play nickel. Still a long way to go in this competition with not much settled in the first week.
  • Another good day for Detroit’s kickers as Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio made all their field goals attempted during the scrimmage, including a 50-yarder from Tavecchio that sailed through the uprights with ease. Unlike last season, when David Akers won the kicking job fairly easily, this season it seems like this could go on for a while. A wrinkle here could be something Caldwell said Saturday – that the team would consider using punter Sam Martin on extremely long field goal attempts. He compared it to his situation in Indianapolis, where Caldwell considered using punter Pat McAfee on long field goals. McAfee never attempted a field goal in a game, though. So something to consider as this competition progresses -- especially as Martin has an extremely impressive camp punting.

The Lions will take Sunday off before practicing again Monday at 8:30 a.m.

Lions Camp Report: Day 4

July, 31, 2014
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • Referees were at practice Thursday and seemed to throw several flags throughout the session. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the officials will be around for a few days to help the players become aware of new rules. The specific area of emphasis, Caldwell explained, is pulling of the jerseys. “It’s really going to affect everybody, you know,” Caldwell said. “It used to be if you grabbed a jersey and you restricted a player, if they saw the shoulders turn a little bit or maybe his stride changed, they would throw the flag. “But now, it’s any tug of the jersey, regardless of what it does to you and the quarterback can be looking over there and the foul can occur behind him and they still are going to throw the flag. So there’s a huge emphasis on that. Those are some of the things we have to make certain we get accustomed to.”
  • Red zone was a focus of Thursday’s practice. On both fields, there was a significant period dedicated to work 20 yards from the end zone and in. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was fairly sharp during this period, highlighted by a leaping touchdown catch by receiver Kris Durham in coverage. It was a catch with a high degree of difficulty by Durham, who was rotating in on the same field along with the majority of the players who have been running with the first team.
  • Speaking of the offense, this was the sharpest the offense has looked throughout the first four days. There were still some throwaways and dump-downs, but Stafford had a pretty good day, completing a large majority of his passes throughout the practice session. Eric Ebron, whose drops have been chronicled here the past three days, had a very nice catch at one point as the ball was headed out of bounds. That is the positive part of why the team drafted him in May.
  • Rookie Kyle Van Noy appears to be starting to make an impact. The linebacker worked with the first-team defense during portions of Thursday’s practice and is starting to push to replace Ashlee Palmer at the SAM spot. After the draft, general manager Martin Mayhew indicated they believed Van Noy would be a starter pretty quickly. Tahir Whitehead also caught Caldwell’s attention, and while he isn’t a starter, the head coach said the third-year pro out of Temple continually shows up well on film. He won’t supplant Stephen Tulloch, but that, plus his special-teams ability, should put him in a good spot.

The Lions return to practice Friday at 3:30 p.m. for a practice open to the public.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – There is now one day left.

The Detroit Lions finished up the second day of their mandatory minicamp Wednesday and it was probably the most balanced day the team has had during their sessions. After the first two weeks of open practices where the defense was dominant and the last couple of practices where the offense has been better, neither group seemed to take over the practice.

Johnson
That might be a good sign for the Lions that the offense is catching up to the defense even if both sides of the ball were without key contributors. Here are some thoughts, notes and observations from the day.
  • A decent amount of players missed practice Wednesday. Wide receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Chris Houston and linebacker Stephen Tulloch were not spotted at practice. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder), guard Rob Sims, wide receiver Golden Tate (shoulder), wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, running back Mikel Leshoure and running back Joique Bell (knee) all sat out practice. Ansah, Tate and Bell were expected. Sims has missed team drills all offseason, as had Glover Quin, who only worked in individual drills Wednesday.
  • Jason Jones appears to be slowly moving back to health. He seemed more active Wednesday than he has during past open practices, including working some with the first unit. He is still coming back from a ruptured patella tendon suffered last season, but he will be a contender for the closed defensive end spot in the fall opposite Ansah on the defensive line.
  • Player of the practice: For the second straight day, it is Calvin Johnson. Any question about Johnson’s health are now gone. He was once again the best player on the field and caught everything around him. He appears to be completely over his injuries and has his timing with Matthew Stafford down once again. He beat any cornerback the Lions lined up against him during 1-on-1 periods and on one play leapt over DeAndre Levy to catch a pass that he ended up running in for a touchdown.
  • During those 1-on-1 drills between defensive backs and receivers, the receivers clearly won the day. They had at least six completions to start the drill, including Kris Durham reaching out to make a difficult catch in front of Darius Slay. Corey Fuller also beat Aaron Hester on a post route that was pretty impressive.
  • Sequence of the day: Two impressive plays in a row. First, safety James Ihedigbo jumped a route from Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew to break up the pass. It was a great break on the ball by Ihedigbo. Stafford followed it up, though, with a perfectly threaded ball to Patrick Edwards into a small window over safety Don Carey. It was the best throw Stafford made on the day.
  • Carey is starting to really emerge as the probable third safety, although this is not unexpected. He once again filled in for Quin during team drills and has been a decent presence back there. In the secondary, Jonte Green is the one player who doesn’t seem to be getting as many reps as one might think.
  • As they did Tuesday, Rodney Austin and rookie Travis Swanson both took first-team reps at guard and center. While Austin worked some at center Tuesday, Swanson was there Wednesday. In some ways, this is a test from Jim Caldwell to see if both of them can play both guard and center, something imperative for a reserve interior lineman. With Sims out, Austin has spent the majority of spring working with the first team at left guard.
  • This is getting repetitive, but Theo Riddick continues to be impressive. He seems a little faster than last season and might have improved more than anyone else on the roster from last season. He is putting himself in position to have a real role in this offense this season after being primarily a backup in 2013.
  • Written about Eric Ebron’s drops here a bit, so worth noting when he makes the type of catch the Lions drafted him for. He extended on what looked like a poorly thrown ball to stretch in front of safety Isa Abdul-Quddus to make the grab before hitting the ground. It is one of the best catches he has made in the open practice setting this spring.
  • With Tulloch not in attendance, Tahir Whitehead took a lot of the first-team snaps at linebacker next to Levy. He was pretty active there. While he is primarily a special-teams standout – he’ll end up having a roster spot because of his special-teams play – that the Lions staff inserted him there behind Tulloch would appear to indicate he is having a pretty good spring. After practice, Caldwell cited how Whitehead controls the movement of other players in that space as one of the reasons they like him behind Tulloch.
  • Really good day for Sam Martin. The second-year punter had some help with the wind, but he crushed almost all of his punts. It is tough to see yard lines because of how the Lions’ outdoor practice fields are set up, but he said after practice one of his punts went over 80 yards and had a few go at least 70 yards. He said his shortest on the day was 63 yards. Strong day for him.
Detroit Lions defensive end Israel Idonije was fined $15,750 for a leg whip during his team's 22-9 loss at Green Bay on Sunday, the only Lion to be fined this week.

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who had a tripping penalty in the first half against the Packers, was not fined. Suh disputed it was even a tripping play when asked about it this week.

"I wouldn't say it was a tripping play. I was more or less reaching out, trying to grab him and being held," Suh said. "It's part of the game. Got to find a better way to get off offensive linemen and make a play."

Linebacker Tahir Whitehead, who had an unnecessary roughness penalty in the fourth quarter Sunday, also was not fined.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer missed practice with an ankle injury according to the Detroit Lions' official practice report Thursday.

He was one of four Lions to miss practice, joining defensive tackle Nick Fairley (shoulder), right tackle Jason Fox (groin) and safety Don Carey (hamstring).

If Palmer were to miss Sunday's game, he would likely be replaced by veteran Rocky McIntosh, although Tahir Whitehead is listed as his backup on the unofficial depth chart.

McIntosh was the fourth linebacker used in Detroit's 34-24 win over Minnesota on Sunday. It also means the Lions now have five healthy linebackers on the roster: starters Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy, McIntosh, Whitehead and Travis Lewis.

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz declined to discuss the injuries to Fairley and Palmer, although he did not Fairley did finish Sunday's game.

Safeties Louis Delmas (knee) and John Wendling (ankle) were limited Thursday. Running back Reggie Bush and defensive end Jason Jones practiced fully.
In the past two days, the Detroit Lions have signed a 34-year-old defensive tackle and a 30-year-old linebacker. They've also made plans to work out a soon-to-be 33-year-old cornerback while also signing a rookie defensive lineman whose checkered past left him unsigned when training camp began.

What in the name of panic is going on here?

I guess the easy answer is that the Lions are disappointed with their defensive personnel at certain positions and have called in reinforcements. In reality, the Lions have essentially acted on contingency plans they put in place before the start of training camp.

Defensive tackle Justin Bannan visited the team in July, as did linebacker Rocky McIntosh. In the interim, the Lions haven't had someone step up as a backup defensive tackle behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. And the two young challengers to the strongside linebacker job, Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis, have both looked overmatched in preseason games.

Bannan is likely to have a backup role along with C.J. Mosley, while McIntosh gives the Lions an option besides Ashlee Palmer at that third linebacker spot. And in veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis, who was scheduled to visit Saturday, the Lions could see an option to incumbent Ron Bartell, who has struggled with injuries and has been pushed for playing time by rookie Darius Slay.

*Update: The Lions announced that Mathis signed a contract after his visit. He was set to participate in Saturday's practice in Allen Park, Mich.

Finally, rookie defensive tackle John Drew agreed to terms about a month after the New England Patriots reportedly pulled their contract offer to him. Drew finished his college career at North Carolina Central University after he was kicked off the team at Duke because of a gun-related arrest. The Lions obviously wanted to evaluate their own depth first before signing him.

Reviewing Friday's action at Ford Field:

Detroit Lions 26, New York Jets 17

Preseason record: 1-0

Of interest: The Lions couldn't have asked for a better start from rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who snagged a Mark Sanchez pass on the second series of the game and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown. (To be fair, defensive linemen Willie Young and C.J. Mosley helped bust up a screen play, and Sanchez should have grounded the ball.) Ansah also had one tackle for loss in playing a total of 20 snaps. … New safety Glover Quin just missed a pick-six himself; Jets tight end Kellen Winslow dislodged the ball as he ran by. … Two of the young players competing for the Lions' third linebacker job appeared to make mistakes in the early going. Tahir Whitehead missed a tackle against Winslow, who went on to a 24-yard gain. And Travis Lewis might have been the player who busted coverage on Jeff Cumberland's 26-yard touchdown reception. … There is no doubt you'll hear plenty about Havard Rugland, aka "Kickalicious," after he converted field goals of 49 and 50 yards in the second half. But it was a strong night of kicking all around for the Lions' new-look special teams. Veteran David Akers also was good on both attempts, from 47 and 35 yards, and rookie punter Sam Martin averaged a net of 43.7 yards on three punts and had touchbacks on all three kickoffs. … It's vital for a rookie to get repetitions, and the Lions made sure to get right guard Larry Warford a game-high 53 snaps. That means he played about three-quarters of the game after replacing starter Dylan Gandy.

Local coverage: Ansah on his touchdown, via Kyle Meinke of Mlive.com: "When I caught it, I was like, 'Oh wait, the ball is in my hands. I've got to go that way. I just did." … Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press: "It was a good start for the young man, but let's not stamp his ticket to Canton just yet, shall we? Detroit is an overly reactionary sports town -- to both positive and negative developments." … Rugland was so excited about his first field goal that he forgot he had to kick off afterwards, writes Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News. … Young had another good preseason game, leaving us all to wonder whether he is ready to translate that production to the regular season. Carlos Monarrez of the Free Press explains.

Up next: Thursday at Cleveland Browns

Tentative 2013 NFC North draft picks

February, 21, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- As the NFL scouting combine gets underway, we have an official but tentative round-by-round list of draft choices for NFC North teams.

The quick breakdown is in the chart below, courtesy some spreadsheet magic from NFC West colleague Mike Sando. In case you're wondering, the Detroit Lions gave their fourth-round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings last year so they could move up and draft linebacker Tahir Whitehead. So at the moment, the Vikings have the No. 5 and the No. 23 pick in the fourth round.

The Chicago Bears' third-round draft pick goes to the Miami Dolphins as part of the Brandon Marshall trade.

To be clear, this list does not include the compensatory picks that some teams receive as a result of the previous year's free agent gains and losses. Those picks will be announced in the spring, probably in mid-March.

Camp Confidential: Lions

August, 11, 2012
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions improved in each of their first three seasons under general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz, progressing from 2-14 to 6-10 to last season's 10-6 playoff campaign. So as they moved through training camp this summer, it was fair to ask: What's next?

"Every team wants to be a champion," receiver Nate Burleson said. "But now we just have to prove we can be consistently [good]. That's the most important thing. We're not that team yet that everybody looks at year in and year out and says we're going to be a contender. We don't have the consistency yet to give off that perception to people outside this facility.

"We don't want to be the team that falls back and be the team that makes mistakes. We don't want to be that successful team that ends up shooting ourselves in the foot halfway through the season."

A few days at training camp revealed the Lions are once again a genuine playoff contender, one whose structure is so routine that coaches had the entire scheme installed in three days. Discussion of an embarrassing offseason has faded, leaving the Lions to focus their attention elsewhere.

Mathematically speaking, the next step for this franchise would be its first-ever NFC North title. But the Lions instead have spent the summer working to shore up the flaws that got them bounced from the 2011 postseason.

"Our goal is to make the playoffs," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "Once you get in the playoffs, you've got a chance to be in it and go win it. You've seen that it doesn't matter whether you win your division or not. It's good to be fighting tooth and nail and trying to find a way to get in. Once you get in, anything can happen. We want to go back to the playoffs and do something when we get there."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJohn Wendling
Carlos Osorio/AP PhotoEarly in the preseason, it appears John Wendling will be the Lions' starting safety.
1. Secondary holes: The Lions had one of the NFL's worst pass defenses over the final six weeks of last season, partially because of injuries to cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas. Houston has returned healthy, but Delmas had surgery last week on his left knee and might miss the preseason.

Meanwhile, safety Amari Spievey's camp performance has been uneven enough to allow veteran John Wendling to supplant him as a starter. The Lions are also working to find a replacement starter for released cornerback Aaron Berry, and the most optimistic turn of camp has been the emergence of rookie Dwight Bentley.

In all, the project to repair one of the Lions' primary 2011 weaknesses remains a work in progress.

"It really doesn't matter what they look like in practice," Schwartz said. "It's how they play in games. These next … preseason games will go a long way toward determining how we feel about those guys and how they practice every day and things like that, not what they've done in the past. We’ve got some quality guys back there."

2. On-field judgment: The Lions' issues with penalties last season have been well-documented, and players said Schwartz has been much more vocal during practice to discourage such easily preventable mistakes. At one point last week, right tackle Gosder Cherilus was removed from a team drill after jumping offsides.

"If you do have penalties, you're going to get it," Houston said. "He's going to yell at you."

Meanwhile, it was worth noting that rookie linebacker Tahir Whitehead kept his composure when veteran center Dominic Raiola whacked his helmet after getting tripped. Several defensive players surrounded Whitehead to prevent any escalation, but Schwartz was pleased with Whitehead's response and how quickly order was restored.

"I think that that's a good step, particularly a rookie like Tahir," Schwartz said, "to be able to show restraint and keep focus even when guys were competing. The biggest thing is not letting those things get a hold of you, and I thought that Tahir did a very good job in that situation."

We're not going to declare the Lions a changed team based on one instance where cooler heads prevailed. But camp usually is when the tenor of a team is set. And even if you don't buy that theory, consider it this way: A focused camp where players are concentrating on their assignments is preferable to one where fighting and other chaos breaks the routine.

3. Health at running back: After months of discussion about the potential of a full-strength backfield, the Lions have yet to get Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure on the practice field together. Best remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, still not cleared to practice, and Leshoure has missed most of camp because of a strained hamstring.

Leshoure is expected to return to practice next week, but for now the Lions' most likely Week 1 starter is veteran Kevin Smith. In many ways, Smith is an ideal option when a team's top two running backs are sidelined. He keeps himself in excellent condition and once again showed in camp that he is well-versed in the Lions' offense.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

In this era of NFL passing efficiency, any team with a quarterback like Stafford, a receiver like Calvin Johnson and a cast of complementary players at tight end (Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler) and receiver (Nate Burleson and Titus Young), will be competitive. Just as significant to the Lions' hopes, however, is the consistency of their program.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/US PresswireQB Matthew Stafford & Co. have developed some consistency that should benefit the Lions this year.
Like Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham are both entering their fourth seasons with the Lions. Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman joined the team in 2010. That means the Lionshave to teach their scheme only to the handful of newcomers they welcomed onto their roster and can spend more of training camp focused on higher matters.

"It's tough for a rookie probably to jump in," Stafford said, "but the whole playbook is in about three or four days. We have a lot of returning starters who know what to do, and it's on the rookies to pick it up along the way."

Schwartz noted that there are always new wrinkles to work on and adjustments to make, but added: "Our first day of training camp, if we had to go play a game, we probably would have been able to call an entire game on offense, defense and special teams. It gives you a little more leeway. You don't have to start over and you don't have to put things in."

REASON FOR PESSIMISSM

The Lions are a good, playoff-caliber team that plays in what might be the NFL's toughest division. Nothing I saw at training camp pointed to anything other than continued progress toward elite status. The Lions' biggest problem is they will fight for a playoff-caliber record in a division that contains two similar teams, the Packers and Bears.

The Lions are 2-10 over the past three seasons against the Packers and Bears. Conventional wisdom suggests they will have to beat out at least one of those teams in the NFC North standings to earn a second-consecutive playoff berth.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • It seems odd to move through a training camp snapshot without mentioning the player who had one of the best seasons for a receiver in NFL history last year. Johnson looked, well, like Johnson -- a man among boys. Earlier this summer, Burleson said he thought Johnson looked stronger and faster than ever. When I dipped into a media scrum surrounding Burleson's locker last week, he was suggesting that Johnson could outrun Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt if he trained as a sprinter rather than a football player. I'm not sure if Burleson was joking or not.
  • We're almost numb to seeing Johnson make inhuman catches, but we're still getting used to the third portion of the Lions' trio of top receivers. Young, by all accounts, has had an excellent camp. Thursday, I watched him meet a low throw in textbook fashion, snatching it just before it hit the ground with both hands. By grabbing the ball and not diving, Young stayed on his feet and used sideline footwork to earn a first down. "He's always been a very skilled player," Schwartz said. "Very good hands. He's an important player in our offense. … He's a guy that missed all of training camp last year. He had very, very few practices. So this is really his first training camp. We are seeing good signs from him, but also continued development. It's not just flashes. It's been a lot more consistency."
  • The Lions are still working through options to find the best place for second-year defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who is spending time at both defensive tackle and at defensive end in a new "Grey" scheme. Fairley is fully healthy for the first time since breaking his foot last August. When I asked Schwartz if he's seen the player the team thought it had when he was drafted, he said: "I don't want to read too much into practice. He's running well. He's strong. He's still developing in our scheme. This is a very important preseason to evaluate him. Last year even when he was playing with us, he was never 100 percent. He is now, and this will be a good preseason for him to show that."
  • We have often joked in our SportsNation chats about the relative lack of recognition Stafford received after a 5,038-yard, 41-touchdown season. So I laughed when asking Stafford if he had allowed himself a moment to feel good about a 5,000-yard season, he said: "I mean, it means nothing at all. Shoot, I don't even think half the league even knew it happened. It doesn't matter to me."
  • Familiarity with Linehan's offense provides at least one advantage: Players are more likely to know multiple positions, allowing them to rotate more often and minimize defensive adjustments. "At this point," Burleson said, "we know the offense and we know each other's positions. Now we can make it even that much more difficult to guard us by the moving [Johnson] around, moving myself around, moving Titus around, so you can't look at the depth chart and know where we're going to line up day in and day out."
  • Rookie first-round pick Riley Reiff got some first-team work at left tackle, where he will probably replace Jeff Backus one day. But there are no indications that Cherilus is in danger of losing his job, giving the Lions a better backup option than most teams have if a starting left tackle or right tackle is injured.
  • The Lions are hosting a punting competition for the second consecutive season, but no favorite has emerged. Ryan Donahue, who opened last season as the Lions' punter, is competing against the player who replaced him after a quadriceps injury, Ben Graham.

CampTour'12: Lions Day 2

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
4:00
PM ET
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Some thoughts and observations from our second day of training camp with the Detroit Lions:
  • It's only fair to note that after a relatively sloppy practice Wednesday, the Lions came back with a sharp and fast-paced workout held indoors because of rain. The team opened with work on its no-huddle offense, and it set the pace for a crisp day. I like how the Lions' coaching staff sets the pace for high tempo by personally sprinting from one drill to the next. It's tough for players not to follow.
  • We noted earlier that rookie cornerback Bill Bentley has been elevated to the first team, at least for the time being. The Lions also had veteran safety John Wendling working with the starters, alongside Erik Coleman, while one-time starter Amari Spievey was working with the second and third teams. Coach Jim Schwartz said Wendling has "had a very good camp." He added: "He's knocked down a lot of passes. He's been in the right spot all the time." Look for Bentley and Wendling to start Friday night against the Cleveland Browns.
  • The practice had some tense moments during one of the final team drills when hot-headed center Dominic Raiola fell, got up and whacked rookie linebacker Tahir Whitehead on the helmet. The two jawed for several more plays but Whitehead did not retaliate, which Schwartz considered a good sign for a team that lost its composure often last season. "The players showed some restraint," Schwartz said. "That's a good step, particularly for a rookie."
  • Because the practice was held indoors, reporters saw running back Mikel Leshoure running for one of the few times since he strained his hamstring early in camp. (Most of his rehabilitation has been conducted indoors while the team practiced outside.) Leshoure ran hard, with his helmet on, during a sideline session with the team's medical staff. It wouldn't be surprising if he returned to practice sometime next week.
  • Backup quarterback Shaun Hill had a little fun during second-team work, twice taking option-like runs deep down the left sideline and encouraging defensive players to chase him. I timed his 40-yard dash in approximately 5.01 seconds.

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