Detroit Lions: What We've Learned Through Week 2 of Preseason
Between those two games and the training camp sessions, we've learned quite a bit about these Lions. There are some significant changes going on under new head coach Jim Caldwell and his fresh coordinators.
The performances so far have provided some clarity about what to expect when the regular season finally kicks off in three short weeks.
It's irresponsible to put too much weight into preseason; the 2008 Lions sailed through the preseason undefeated only to lose all 16 once the games actually mattered. Still, we've seen a lot of intriguing developments with the 2014 version of the Detroit Lions.
Here are a few of those preseason gleanings.
Matthew Stafford Looks Great
Quarterback Matthew Stafford finished the 2013 season on a serious downward spiral, a trend that directly led to the collapse from 6-3 and the NFC North lead to 7-9 and the end of the Jim Schwartz era.
He's taken to the new staff and offense like a duck to water. With offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi importing the high-flying, intricate offense from the New Orleans Saints and quarterback coach Jim Bob Cooter working closely with Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft looks fantastic.
His rifle of a right arm has been smoking hot all summer. Stafford was phenomenal in Oakland against the Raiders' first-team defense:
Matthew Stafford's first two drives: 8/9, 87 yards, 9.7 yards/att, 2 TDs, 0 INTs. 146.5 passer rating. #Lions— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) August 16, 2014
It's worth noting the incompletion was a drop by Reggie Bush, too.
The mechanical laziness that has dogged Stafford's productive but uneven career appears (finally!) resolved. If his hot summer carries over into fall, Stafford has strong potential to top his career highs of 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011.
Nick Fairley Remains an Enigma
It's no surprise Nick Fairley continues to be his own worst enemy, just like the classic '90s song from Lit. Fairley makes fans, coaches and teammates completely miserable at times with his inattention to detail and mindless penalties.
He's been battling himself his entire Detroit career. Multiple arrests off the field have coupled with wildly inconsistent play between the sidelines. His troubles with self-discipline go back to his Auburn days, too.
His weight has been an ongoing issue as well. Everyone hoped that was resolved when Fairley showed up to June's OTAs visibly svelter and lither. A change in diet and surgery to correct sleep apnea facilitated a drop to 295 pounds, down at least 30 from his playing weight in his up-and-down 2013 campaign.
Yet he could not handle his own good fortune. As Kyle Meinke of MLive documented, Fairley's rapidly ballooning weight "was a major component" in his demotion to the second string behind C.J. Mosley.
It was easy, and painful, to see Fairley lose control of his weight so dramatically:
“@mork1215: Fairley looks horrible...he's bigger than last year”--was shocking from seeing him in June and then last week. Gained ~30 lbs— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) August 16, 2014
Just like that, the enigmatic Fairley proves general manager Martin Mayhew was 100 percent correct in declining the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.
It looks like this season will be another year of peaks and valleys for Fairley, even with the new coaching staff and Coach Caldwell's increased focus on personal accountability. Another Lit song is apropos for Fairley's career: The Best is Yet to Come Undone.
Still a Battle for Secondary Depth
The four starters in the secondary are set, and that first unit of Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay at corner and James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin at safety has played well. They have ceded just one field goal in five full preseason series.
Behind the underrated starting unit, the depth chart remains highly unsettled.
Presumed nickelback Bill Bentley, who has held that role for most of the last two seasons, has struggled both in camp and the preseason games. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades the 2012 third-round pick harshly, his minus-3.4 weighed down by two penalties.
Bentley's draft classmate, Jonte Green, has struggled even more. The Raiders engineered their comeback win largely by targeting Green, as noted by Nathan Jahnke of PFF:
For one reason or another, late in the game the Raiders choose to target Green relentlessly. In his 17 plays in coverage, his receiver was targeted 11 times. While his numbers will show he only allowed four completions, that doesn’t include a few times where he was beat in coverage but there was a bad throw or a dropped pass. Those account for a number of the incomplete passes and not strong play from Green.
He's had some positive moments in training camp but not enough to inspire any confidence. The third corner from that 2012 draft class, Chris Greenwood, is trying to seize upon those struggles to assert his own case for regular-season playing time.
Greenwood has been uneven as well but has outplayed Bentley and Green. I broke down his performance vs. Cleveland with harsh eyes, but he's been the best of the trio. He had little to do in limited action in Oakland, which might actually augment his chances.
The team brought in Drayton Florence to try and provide a veteran solution, but he was terrible against the Raiders. He bit hard on a hitch-and-go by Bryce Butler on 3rd-and-10 and was barely visible in the picture as the Raiders roster long shot hauled in a 38-yard bomb.
The picture is a little clearer at safety, though the competition between Isa Abdul Quddus, DeJon Gomes, Jerome Couplin and Don Carey remains undecided. Abdul Quddus and Couplin should have the edge based on preseason play, but that might not be how the coaches see the field.
Screens and Swings Are a Problem for the Defense
Both the Browns and Raiders found lots of success by attacking Detroit's defense with screen passes and quick checkdowns to outlets in the flat.
I decided to review both games and tally the numbers. On plays where the quarterbacks targeted backs, or receivers on passes of less than 3 yards, the Lions defense really struggled:
Several were designed quick-hit plays or rollouts, taking advantage of over-aggressiveness by the Detroit defense.
It's not just any one player being victimized, either. Linebackers are consistently either late to recognize or overrunning their responsibilities. Safeties are too slow to get outside and often lose control when trying to make up ground. Linemen—notably Devin Taylor at end—are too readily sucked inside to open up easy throwing lanes and cutback allies.
While it's quite likely new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has yet to show the full defensive scheme in exhibition games, it's still disturbing to see the unit repeatedly beaten with the same sort of plays. This is an issue the Lions must tighten up before September.
George Winn Deserves a Chance
Running back George Winn spent time on three different practice squads as an undrafted rookie in 2013. After signing as a street free agent in Detroit, he just might have found himself a more permanent roster residence.
Winn offers a hard-charging running style, often dishing out as much punishment as he takes. In both preseason games he has demonstrated vision and decisiveness as a runner. Those are two traits the man he's primarily competing against for the fourth running back slot, Mikel Leshoure, does not show consistently. Winn even scored a touchdown in Oakland.
What should tilt the scales in Winn's favor is his outstanding work on special teams. In the Oakland game he notched two tackles on the kick coverage unit, one of them a great submarine upending inside the Raiders 20-yard line.
George Winn on the first team PR tonight, too. Lions taking a long look at him. Good game, played well last week.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) August 16, 2014
A fumble against the Browns is a legit black mark on his resume, but beyond that he's been the more impressive all-around player than Leshoure or Montell Owens, who appears to have little role with the team.
Another solid outing against the Jaguars in the next preseason game should solidify Winn's hold on one of the final 53-man roster spots. He has to show off in games because his physical running style doesn't translate well in practices.
The Kicking Battle Remains Open
The most heated positional battle in Detroit's camp is at kicker. Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio are engaged in a very tight race to secure the chance to be the long-term replacement for Lions legend Jason Hanson.
Neither kicker has seized any real advantage. Both struggled early in camp before finding their collective strides. One day Freese will gain the upper leg, but Tavecchio seizes it back the next.
The preseason games have yet to produce any sort of conclusive winner. Freese, the team's seventh-round pick out of Boston College, nailed a 55-yard field goal in Oakland, but that came after he clanked an extra point off the right upright.
The coaches have even resorted to unusual challenges to try and find their man, as noted by Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press.
From the camp sessions I attended and two preseason contests, my mental scorecard has Tavecchio slightly ahead. Freese has a little more oomph in his leg on field goals but the Cal product has exhibited better control, particularly on kicks between 35 and 45 yards.
This figures to be a very difficult decision for Caldwell and the coaching staff.
Two Rookies to Worry About
Detroit's top two picks in May's draft are generally acquitting themselves nicely. Eric Ebron and Kyle Van Noy have flashed the skills and potential the Lions coveted during the draft process, albeit with some expected rookie inconsistencies.
The next two draftees, however, are a decidedly different story.
Third-rounder Travis Swanson has been nothing short of awful all summer. From a litany of botched snaps in training camp sessions to glaringly inept blocking performances in both preseason games, the center from Arkansas looks to be in way over his head.
#Lions go three-and-out. Travis Swanson got destroyed on third down.— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) August 16, 2014
It hasn't been much better for cornerback Nevin Lawson, a fourth-round pick from Utah State. His primary issue is learning to play without using his hands so much. With the NFL's overbearing emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact, Lawson is struggling to adapt.
To this point, neither Swanson nor Lawson has demonstrated any legitimate reason why they should make the 53-man roster other than their draft status. It will be interesting to see what happens if they don't quickly improve in the final two preseason games.
Ryan Broyles Looks Just Fine
The most heartwarming story emanating from Lions camp is the impressive recovery of wide receiver Ryan Broyles.
His quest to return from three consecutive season-ending leg injuries is progressing quite nicely.
That sort of sentiment pervaded message boards and social media throughout the Oakland game. He caught just two passes, but one of those included a nifty run after the catch which highlighted Broyles' agility, proving his knees and Achilles tendon injuries appear fully healed.
His innate feel for holes in zones and ability to quickly transition from receiver to runner are qualities the Lions' receiving corps has sorely lacked the last two seasons. Even after adding Golden Tate and Eric Ebron to bolster the offensive weaponry, a healthy Broyles definitely has an integral role in the Detroit offense.
At Least One Good Defensive Linemen Will Be Cut
The Lions have a glut of talent across the defensive line. It's a case where there really might be too much of a good thing.
Someone is going to be the victim of a numbers game when the roster cuts down to 53 players.
These seven guys, listed in no particular order, are all safe:
- Ndamukong Suh
- Ezekiel Ansah
- Jason Jones
- Nick Fairley
- Larry Webster
- C.J. Mosley
- Devin Taylor
Most NFL teams keep nine or 10 defensive linemen, typically five each at tackle and end. That leaves several appealing candidates fighting for the final two or three roster spots.
Fifth-round rookie Caraun Reid has generated some positive moments, though he's also looked outclassed several times as well. It's hard to see him not making it with the top three tackles all unsigned beyond this season, however.
Journeyman end George Johnson has been a revelation:
George Johnson just murdered Matt Schaub. Second time he's brought heat.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) August 16, 2014
He's consistently received first-team reps with Ansah out with a shoulder injury, and he's made the most of them.
Free-agent Darryl Tapp has also looked good in his first-team action at end and in drills, as noted by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. He offers a veteran presence and savvy, as well as the ability to drop back and play linebacker in a pinch. That's a real asset for a team that figures to only keep five linebackers.
A pair of undrafted rookies, Kris Redding and Greg Hickman, have both shown viable NFL skills in limited opportunities. Both graded out impressively against Cleveland according to Pro Football Focus, and Hickman was once again quite active against Oakland.
Meanwhile, imposing Xavier Proctor bagged a sack against the Raiders and has shown he knows how to use his impressive length. He spent 2013 on Detroit's practice squad.
Even veteran Andre Fluellen, now in his sixth stint in Detroit, has had some moments in practice. Like Jones and Taylor, he offers flexibility to play both end and tackle.