As we all know by now, the Detroit Lions lost to the Cleveland Browns by a score of 19-17 in their first preseason game. I am never happy with a loss, but the Lions gave us plenty of reasons to be pleased with their play. They also gave us plenty of reasons for concern.
The Lions led on the scoreboard for almost the entire game. They lost the lead for the first time with less than a minute left to play. The Lions outplayed the Browns while the players who are most likely to make the roster were on the field. There probably isn't any reason to panic over guys who are likely to be cut ending up losing the game. It is disappointing that the bubble players did not manage more intensity. If you can't get motivated to play hard when your job is on the line, you aren't worthy of a roster spot.
I warn you that I have a lot to say in this article, but that's nothing new. So let's get into the meat of it.
The quarterback play was inconsistent. Matthew Stafford did not look sharp, but that is a bit misleading. The difficulties that Stafford experienced were as much about what other players did wrong as they were about him. The first-string offense has some work to do in order to get their chemistry down.
Shaun Hill looked pretty sharp. He moved the Lions offense efficiently and put points on the scoreboard. While Hill was in the game the Lions clearly outplayed the Browns and built a lead. Hill will never be accused of having a rocket arm, but he got his throws to his receivers on time and in a good position to catch the ball. He was not perfect, though. He did not see a wide open Joique Bell on a third down in the red zone and threw the ball away. That forced him to throw a pressure touchdown pass to Stefan Logan on fourth down. While experiencing the pressure of a fourth down situation is probably good for the team, it was not necessary.
The fortunes of the Lions offense turned sour as Kellen Moore took over at quarterback. Moore looked unsettled in the pocket and seemed to struggle with the speed of the game. Kellen was not aided much by his receivers, who dropped several passes and regularly ran poor routes. Almost everything that the offense accomplished during Moore's snaps was due to Joique Bell's running prowess. It is probably best not to overreact to Moore's shaky start since it is common for a rookie quarterback to struggle in their first preseason game.
The first-string offensive line was inconsistent. The run blocking was predictably sub-par and forced Kevin Smith to be creative to gain yards. The pass blocking was better but allowed more pressure on Matthew Stafford than the coaches, or fans, would prefer.
The performance by the second-string offensive line was very good. The grunts in the trenches gave Shaun Hill time to throw the ball and opened good running lanes for the running backs. Some of this was certainly due to the Browns lacking depth on their defensive line. It would be interesting to see how this unit would perform against a first-team defense. Unfortunately, as the game wore on, the running holes started closing again.
I was impressed by the play of Jason Fox and Riley Reiff. They both looked strong and agile. Hopefully, this is a sign that the future of the Lions' offensive line is bright. The second unit was filled out mainly by Dylan Gandy at center with Jacques McClendon and Dan Gerberry playing guard. All of them did a good job. Corey Hilliard also rotated into the second and third units and played well.
The Lions had to play shorthanded at running back because of the continued absence of Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best. This left Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams, Joique Bell and Stefan Logan with the task of carrying the football.
I thought the most impressive runner was Kevin Smith. He managed to find holes and manufacture positive yardage despite poor run blocking by the first-team offensive line. He also had to do it against the Browns' first-team defense.
When Keiland Williams entered the game, the running game exploded. The second-team offensive line opened running lanes and Williams found them with regularity. I was pleasantly surprised that Williams showed some speed as well.
Joique Bell played mainly in the second half. The run blocking was inconsistent for Bell and he often had to cut back away from the designed run gap to find room to operate. He displayed good vision and regularly made good cuts to take advantage of a Browns defense that was overrunning the play. It was a nice debut for Joique as a Lion.
Stefan Logan switched between running back and receiver during the game. He is being moved around to different positions to maximize the utility that the Lions can get from him. Logan played well from both positions. As a running back, he made a nice gain on a counter pitch play where he was able to use his speed. He also made a nice catch on a swing pass that was thrown behind him, turning a potential incomplete pass into a nice gain.
Fullback James Bryant played very few snaps and there isn't much to say about him. I am not sure how the coaches will balance his contribution against a guy like Will Heller or the other running backs. He seems to be a long shot to make the team when measured against other players that can make more of an impact.
Titus Young and Ryan Broyles were scratched from the game roster, so they get a pass for this week. Nate Burleson played only with the first team and didn't see any real opportunities to catch the ball.
Calvin Johnson did exactly as expected on his two catches. He got the ball in his hands and made as many yards as the defense would allow. Stafford and Johnson look like they are still in sync even if other parts of the offense are not.
Maurice Stovall looked good in his opportunities. He found open space and gave Shaun Hill a big target to throw to. He also contributed on special teams to increase his overall value on the roster.
Patrick Edwards was a bit disappointing. He dropped a pass in the first possession of the game that forced the Lions to punt. Edwards had earned a chance to show his skill on the first team with Titus Young out, but he did not rise to the moment and make the critical catch to keep the drive alive. He also allowed himself to be jammed out of bounds on a third down play that was thrown to him in the second quarter. That resulted in the Lions being forced to attempt a field goal that was missed. Edwards wasn't horrible, but the hype from camp made my expectations higher than what he produced on the field.
Stefan Logan caught a couple passes as a receiver and he looked competent at the position. His quick cut at the goal line, on fourth down, opened just enough room for Shaun Hill to get the ball to him for a touchdown.
None of the other wide receivers had a standout performance in my mind. Dominique Curry had a bad game as far as I am concerned. He had a drop and does not appear to adjust well to the ball. Curry allowed the defender to position for the ball better than him and get an interception on Kellen Moore to effectively end the game. With the game on the line, Curry needed to fight for that catch. Instead he wasn't even close enough to touch the ball.
As I mentioned earlier, Brandon Pettigrew had a bit of an off day. He made a couple nice catches, but he also dropped one. His worst mistake was to run the wrong route, resulting in an interception of Matthew Stafford. These things happen and I am sure Pettigrew will be fine by the time the games start to count.
Tony Scheffler was not able to make a catch during the game, but he had a couple of nice blocks in the running game.
Will Heller was a great target for Shaun Hill and they connected on a nice pass for 21 yards that set up a Lions touchdown. Heller bolstered his claim for a spot on the team, if there really was ever a doubt.
The defensive linemen played very well. I was especially happy that the first-team defensive linemen played solid run defense. I saw more tackles made by the defensive line in the short time that the first team played than you would normally see in an entire game last season. I saw a lot more pursuit of the runner down the line of scrimmage rather than just bulling straight ahead toward the quarterback
Ndamukong Suh played very well for the short time he was in the game. He found an excellent balance between putting pressure on the quarterback and making plays in the running game. If he can play like that on a consistent basis he will be a beast this year. It will go a long way toward stopping the opposition running game and making the opposing offense one-dimensional.
Willie Young looked strong and quick. We knew he could play like that from the flashes he had shown us last season. The only problem is whether Young can maintain that level of play for an entire game. I believe he can. The Lions will have a deep defensive line rotation that will help him stay fresh. Young made a nice play where he stripped the ball from the quarterback and then stayed active to recover the fumble. What is more, he did it on an inside pass rush move, which we rarely see from starting defensive ends.
Everette Brown made a case for getting a roster spot by putting consistent pressure on the quarterback. He did it with both inside and outside moves. Brown also made an excellent play by shooting the gap on a run and forcing the running back to bounce the play outside, where Ricardo Silva was waiting for the tackle.
Ronnell Lewis played well. He stuffed a run on a two-point conversion attempt to allow the Lions to retain the lead. Lewis consistently caused pressure on the quarterback. He was a disruptive presence, and that is exactly what you want from your defensive line. Ronnell Lewis still has a lot of work ahead, but he looks promising.
The linebacker play was spotty. The Lions expect an awful lot from their linebackers. They are asked to fill gaps in the run defense and also play strong pass defense.
Justin Durant made a really nice play on a screen pass where he sniffed it out and ran up to cover the running back. That forced Brandon Weeden to throw away the ball for an incomplete pass. Later in the game we saw the flip side when Durant had soft coverage on the tight end and missed the tackle after the pass was caught.
Certainly, the first-string players were limited in the number of snaps that they played and that gives them a small excuse. Still, I would have expected more plays from that unit while they were in. Stephen Tulloch had no tackles. How does that happen?
The linebackers that stood out a bit and made some plays were Doug Hogue and Carmen Messina. Both of them were active and consistently around the ball. They both made some nice plays to help stop drives. They both also missed on some plays.
With all the hype surrounding them, I was not particularly impressed by Tahir Whitehead or Travis Lewis. They both have to find ways to make more of an impact on the game. When you don't hear the name of a linebacker much during a telecast, it is a bad thing.
The safeties made some impact plays. Ricardo Silva had a nice tackle for a loss on a running play, but he also missed three tackles. That is a lot of tackles for a safety to miss.
Sean Jones tackled pretty well despite his trouble with broken tackles last season. The problem is that he was usually a step late to react to running plays.
The pass coverage by the safeties was soft and allowed a lot of space for receivers to sit down in the gaps between zones. This often forced the middle linebacker to take very deep drops like they were playing Tampa 2 rather than cover two. I will have to watch how this develops over the rest of the preseason.
The cornerback play was pretty good on the first team. After that it took a bit of a nosedive. Let's hope we do not see many injuries at this position during the 2012 season. Hopefully the young corners will continue to improve and lend this position some depth.
Bill Bentley started the game slowly and got burned for a long completion on the first pass thrown his way. He did not turn his head to see the ball coming, and that prevented him from making a play. To Bentley's credit, he fought back and made some really nice plays after that. He could have had two interceptions in the game, but he dropped one that would have likely gone for six points. The good news is that he is developing rapidly and has a good chance to win the starting corner spot opposite Chris Houston.
Chris Houston had a quiet game. That is probably due to the fact that the Browns were picking on the young cornerbacks and didn't throw the ball his way very much.
Jonte Green is definitely a project. He had problems turning his head to pick up the ball early but managed to correct that on a play in the end zone later in the game. We are probably going to be frustrated with Green at times, but we have to remember he is a rookie that was drafted in a relatively late round. If he becomes a quality depth player, that is a win.
Alphonso Smith is still a bit lost out there. He would have surrendered two long receptions if the receiver did not bail him out on one with a drop. He also made other bad plays that were not as obvious. This time he did not get a pick to offset his mistakes.
Odds And Ends
I like that Matthew Stafford started the game by taking the snap from under center. I feel that avoiding the deep, delayed hand-offs from the shotgun helps the running game significantly. I would still like to see how the offense would perform from a pistol snap.
Cliff Avril was a scratch from the game roster because he still has work to do before he is ready to play a game. I am happy the coaches chose to sit him because the other players were in camp and earned those reps in this first preseason game. When Avril returns, he will have some competition at his spot, as will Kyle Vanden Bosch.
I noticed the middle linebacker dropping very deep at times in the cover two package like the Lions had reverted back to the Tampa 2 scheme. Ashlee Palmer had to cover a slot receiver 20 yards down the field on one particular play.
Nothing much was decided in the battle of the punters during the first game. The only long punt return came off Ben Graham, but he appeared to be the victim of poor coverage rather than a bad punt. In truth, neither punter looked particularly sharp.
I like the halftime and post-game reactions from Jim Schwartz. It is obvious that he is raising the expectations he has of the players and is no longer excusing bad plays.