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Lions vs. Steelers preseason preview: Five things to watch for

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Here are five things to watch for in the Detroit Lions’ preseason opener.

NFL Draft Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Friday night the Detroit Lions finally return to the gridiron after seven months away. The stage is set for the Lions to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in the first preseason game in 2016 for both teams.

It’s inevitable that fans of both teams will overreact to whatever happens. If, let’s say, the Lions end up going scoreless the entire game, fans will panic. Of course, Lions fans know all too well the dangers of being too optimistic because of the preseason, as well.

That being said, the results of the preseason aren’t completely useless. While it’s irresponsible to judge a performance on a team level, the game is undeniably important on an individual level. With that in mind, here are the five things to watch for in the Lions-Steelers preseason game.

Who will stand out at running back?

Last year, Zach Zenner had an outstanding preseason, leading the entire league in rushing yards over the four-game span. That performance likely won him a spot on the 53-man roster. This year, he finds himself again in another heated competition. Out of Zenner, Stevan Ridley, George Winn and Dwayne Washington, only two backs are likely to make the roster. With Ameer Abdullah likely to sit out the season opener, these backs will have more chances to stick out against Pittsburgh.

Where is the starting offensive line in terms of a unit?

By far the biggest issue heading into the 2016 season for the Detroit Lions is the performance of the offensive line. The success of the offense hinges on a big improvement from the front five. Detroit had the worst rushing attack in 2015 and Matthew Stafford has been sacked 89 in the past two years combined. As a result, the Lions have ranked 18th and 22nd in scoring in the last two seasons.

Detroit appears to have their starting offensive line set. Taylor Decker slides in as the team’s new left tackle, while the veteran lineman Riley Reiff shifts over to right tackle. This game will be our first chance to see how this group performs as a unit. The Lions offensive line doesn’t need to come out and look perfect, but as long as they show a general sense of competency, it will be an upgrade.

Can the Lions generate pressure from the edges?

One of the biggest holes on the roster left mostly unaddressed in the offseason was defensive end. The Lions lost starter Jason Jones to free agency, while only adding rotational player Wallace Gilberry and sixth-round pick Anthony Zettel to the mix.

We know Ezekiel Ansah remains a beast, but the Lions don’t have any other proven pass rusher on the roster. Can Devin Taylor take the next step as a starter? How will Brandon Copeland adjust to moving back to defensive end again? Will Zettel make a good case for a spot on the 53-man roster? At some point in this season, the Lions will need to use their depth at defensive end. Friday is a good chance to see if Detroit truly has any.

Who is going to play linebacker for this team?

Perhaps even more worrisome is the team’s depth at linebacker. The mystery of DeAndre Levy’s injury continues, and in the meantime, the Lions have struggled to put three healthy, competitive linebackers on the field during training camp. Tahir Whitehead is locked in as the team’s starting middle linebacker (though reports on his coverage problems in camp are troubling).

Outside of that, the Lions can’t seem to find a supporting cast with Levy on the sidelines. Jon Bostic looked promising, but is now facing a serious injury. Kyle Van Noy, currently slotted as the team’s starting strongside linebacker, was absolutely dreadful in his rare defensive snaps in 2015. In fact, the only linebacker left on the roster with any sort of proven success is Josh Bynes, who has proven in his five-year career that he’s best used as a backup. The Lions absolutely need someone in their depth chart to stand out, because Levy’s healthy is anything but guaranteed at this point.

Who will win roster spots in the secondary?

The starting jobs in the secondary aren’t really up for grabs. Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs have the three cornerbacks spots on lock. While it appears Glover Quin and Rafael Bush will man the safety positions. That being said, there remains a healthy competition at the bottom of the defensive back depth charts. Guys like Darrin Walls, Johnson Bademosi, Crezdon Butler, Alex Carter, Don Carey and Tavon Wilson are all talented enough to make the final roster, but none of them are guaranteed a spot at this point. Not only will their defensive performances matter in the preseason, but they’ll also have to prove their worth in special teams.

Second- and third-string secondary play may not sound all that exciting to watch in a preseason game, but we’re talking about guys who could have a major impact on the Lions this year. Remember in 2015, Diggs made the team as a lowly sixth-round rookie. By Week 7, he was already starting games for the Lions. If one of the starting defensive backs goes down with an injury, Detroit needs the peace of mind that they’ll have the depth to not miss a beat defensively.