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Positional grades for Lions vs. Steelers: Offensive line struggles, defensive line with a strong showing

The first preseason game is in the books for the Lions; here’s a look at how the team performed at each position and a grade to go with it.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

While I was watching the pre-game coverage before the Lions and Steelers kicked off on Friday night, Dan Miller of Fox 2 asked Herman Moore what his advice would be to the young players trying to make the team as they headed into the first game of the preseason. The former Lions wide receiver had this to say:

You have to go out and I think you have to work on the grading side. What people don’t understand is that players get graded, coaches get graded, everyone gets a grade. And what you do is you go out and you try to be sound in your assignment, you pay attention to the detail. You try and grade really high: you catch every pass, you make every right call at the line of scrimmage, the quarterback makes every throw. When you do that, it allows you to see where you are and where you need to go...

In summary, literally everyone who saw the field on Friday night is getting a grade by the people who are trying to cut this roster from 90 to 75, and then from 75 to 53. The Lions as a team were able to get a 30-17 victory, but in the grand scheme of the four weeks of preseason football, the final score means virtually nothing. In order to extrapolate anything from this game, let’s review how the Lions fared at each position on Friday night and hand out some grades:

Quarterbacks: B

Matthew Stafford faced pressure... a lot of pressure. The members of the first-team offensive line were constantly relinquishing their ground, or even just missing assignments and allowing Steelers defenders to take their shots at Stafford. Under all of that pressure though, I thought Stafford looked good and played well. He hung in the pocket and took a hit to throw a strike to Marvin Jones on the sideline. He was able to look off a group of Steelers who thought a play to Theo Riddick was developing in the flats and then throwing — slightly behind — to Anquan Boldin for a big gain.

Dan Orlovsky made a bad play, which then turned into a bad throw, which then became the first points to go up on the board. It was a perfect time for the SOL fans to come out of the woodwork, and they did, but when they turned off the TV, Orlovsky shook off that awful decision and very quietly had an alright game. 16-for-25, 180 yards passing and a touchdown is nothing to turn your nose up at from a backup.

And that’s what Dan Orlovsky will be: a backup. Jake Rudock had a fine showing in his first bit of NFL action. Man, dare I say that he even looked, gulp, serviceable out there? Sure I can, he was up against a medley of practice squad all-stars and players soon to be buried on the Steelers’ depth chart. With that being said, it’s hard to say — even with the Lions basically giving Rudock a paint-by-numbers version of the offense to roll with — that completing 8 of 11 passes for 72 yards and touchdown isn’t, at the very least, doing your job well.

Running backs: B-

I don’t want to say Theo Riddick will never be much of a runner out of the backfield, but his work tonight left a lot to be desired. He missed holes, he wasn’t very patient and he didn’t pick up a block that resulted in Stafford hitting the deck. Many people were really sour over his performance tonight, maybe because his one reception — what Riddick excels best at — was an awkward, disappointing two-yard gain.

What was the saving grace for the running back position was the 2015 preseason standout, Zach Zenner. Zenner looked healthy, his shoulders were always square to the hole, he finished all of his runs with his feet moving and he did a good job blocking in both the backfield and on special teams. Stevan Ridley was rather lackluster, oddly enough tucked way down the depth chart and given few opportunities tonight: five carries for 14 yards, one reception for five yards.

Rookie Dwayne Washington did more in one special teams play than he did with the three touches for 27 yards he got on offense: he returned a kickoff 96 yards for six points. If anyone needed to stand out on special teams to have a shot at making the roster, it’s Washington.

Wide receivers: B

Though Golden Tate went without a target during his only series on the field, Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin contributed in big ways to move the Lions down the field on their first drive. Jones made spectacular toe-drag catch on the Lions’ sideline for 16 yards and a first down on third-and-9. Boldin, three plays later on third-and-6, caught a ball from Stafford over the middle for 30 yards that took the Lions deep into Steelers’ territory.

After that, it was a tale of ups and downs for the second group of receivers. Jeremy Kerley dropped a deep pass that could have gone for six, but should have at least went for a 30-yard completion. He would bounce back and catch five passes for 36 yards after a troubling drop for a receiver that is fighting for a spot as a sure-handed slot receiver or special teams, guy. Andre Roberts had his troubles as well, and even some of his catches weren’t as clean and fundamentally sounds as you would have wanted them to be, but his stat line was probably the most impressive: three catches for 57 yards and a touchdown. Roberts also had a couple of punt returns for nothing and a couple of kick returns for 36 yards. It seems as though Kerley and Roberts Round 2 will be something to keep an eye on to see if anyone can truly stand out.

A receiver who took a step back with a poor performance in the first week of the preseason was TJ Jones. One reception for a negative yard and a fumble wasn’t exactly the kind of showing of a receiver pegged by many as a shoe-in for the fourth wide receiver spot.

Tight ends: C+

Along with the linebacker position, the Lions are extremely lean at tight end with the uncertain status of Eric Ebron’s ankle and Brandon Pettigrew still on the PUP list. Cole Wick did make a nice catch in the middle of the field on third down to extend the Lions first drive of the game, but it was clear he still has a ways to come as a blocker. James Harrison was having a field day coming off the edge, and on the Lions first play from scrimmage, Wick failed to chip Harrison on his way to the second level and a play that could have gone for more was rendered a three-yard gain by Riddick. Later in the drive, Wick was unable to hold a block on linebacker Lawrence Timmons, resulting in a gain of one for Theo Riddick.

Matthew Mulligan was largely unnoticeable, relegated to blocking along the line as what would be expected of him. Orson Charles had two catches for 15 yards.

Centers: C

A lot — and I mean a lot — of the previously mentioned pressure that the Steelers were able to get on Stafford was generated all over the offensive-line, but one area that seemed to be more porous than others in pass-pro was the center position. Once again, it was linebacker James Harrison who penetrated right up the gut on a missed assignment by Travis Swanson to force a hurry, a QB hit and the Lions to move to third-and-7. The Steelers were able to just forcefully push back the interior of the line on a lot of pass plays and forced Stafford to use his feet far more in one series than Cooter would want him to utilize them in most games.

Graham Glasgow looked a little shaky to start out with Joe Dahl to his left, but I thought that, much like Dahl, Glasgow performed better once they got over nerves.

Guards: C-

The Lions starting guards were a mixed bag in the preseason opener. Laken Tomlinson had a couple of positive plays on the first drive, finishing well on a couple of blocks on run plays. On a first down early in the game, Tomlinson looked good pulling down the line and finding linebacker Ryan Shazier... but he came just short of taking him out of the play completely by not leading with his right shoulder and sealing. With the way Riddick was running the ball, he wasn’t doing any favors to how the offensive line looked either. In pass protection, though, Tomlinson and fellow starter Larry Warford weren’t at the top of their games and looked to be in preseason form. On another play from Detroit’s first drive, Warford, anticipating a safety blitz from Robert Golden, allowed linebacker Arthur Moats to fly right by him and put a hit on Stafford as he was hung out to dry in the pocket.

Backup guard Joe Dahl looked good moving in space on a couple of plays, getting down the line and getting in front of Zach Zenner. But on Orlovsky’s interception, he completely missed Ricardo Mathews off the line, turning his head to the inside and forgetting about the defensive end to his left. Veteran Geoff Schwartz also had reps at guard opposite of Joe Dahl and at this point, Schwartz, despite his lack of reps anywhere else along the line, should be part of the 53-man roster.

Offensive tackles: D+

It probably wasn’t the debut Taylor Decker was hoping to make as the starting left tackle for the Detroit Lions, but it’s one that he’s going to have to turn into a learning experience and move on from. In pass protection, Decker had the tall task of going up against, you guessed it, the savvy veteran James Harrison and I’m not sure if Decker ever clearly got the best of him. On the play where Stafford was able to complete a pass to Cole Wick for a first down on the Lions’ first series, Decker was able to do just enough to force Harrison wide and around the Lions quarterback. But a couple minutes later, Decker was flagged for holding and then on the very next play was beat badly, giving up a sack which would see Stafford cough up the ball while in scoring range. It wasn’t all bad for Decker though, as he looked much more comfortable blocking for runners than he did in pass-pro.

Riley Reiff looked decent at right tackle — better out in front of the runners than he did protecting Stafford — but he was only in for the first series until Michael Ola replaced him when the team started their second series of the game.

Defensive ends: B+

One of the most promising developments of the game was the defensive line, and especially so along the edges where the Lions are perceived to be their shortest on talent after their one starting standout in Ezekiel Ansah. Devin Taylor looked more great than bad, failing to keep outside contain on a play early on in the game, but then opening up the Steelers’ second series with a sack of Landry Jones.

Brandon Copeland was another standout at the defensive end position, providing a ton of pressure on the quarterback all night and even scooping up a fumble. He was sometimes a bit too aggressive, but to see him out there with the first-team defense on some plays, I find it to be telling of just how much this coaching staff must believe in his talents as a pass-rusher.

Ansah didn’t play, but in his place, Wallace Gilberry played solidly for most of the first quarter.

Defensive tackles: B

Another confirmation of our beliefs this offseason, the defensive tackle position is filled with a variety of types of talent and is really very deep. If the Lions choose to keep five defensive tackles, it’s going to be hard to pick a guy who isn’t going to make the team, which makes me think that won’t happen. Caraun Reid and Tyrunn Walker were out there as the starting defensive tackles, providing a good push up front as Reid got his hands around a running back for a no-gain at the end of the first quarter, but the depth had plenty of chances to show what they could do.

Khyri Thornton suplexed a running back, showing off his bullish strength and ability to clog up the running game.

Linebackers: B-

Linebacker is a position where the Lions are extremely thin, not only in terms of depth, but also when it comes to putting a reliable starting unit on the field. DeAndre Levy is still on the NFI and did not play last night, so Josh Bynes started in his spot. Tahir Whitehead was all over the middle of the field on Friday night and that was a definite positive for a team that had so much trouble defending that area of the field a year ago.

Kyle Van Noy played quite a bit, making some plays, but making some plays look more difficult than they could have been for the third-year linebacker. On the Steelers’ first play of the game, Landry Jones dumped the ball off to tight end David Johnson and Van Noy was all over it; getting to the flats in a hurry, Van Noy was able to wrap up and make the tackle on Johnson in space, but he got caught over-pursuing, not breaking down early enough and having to re-adjust to bring down the ball carrier. Overall, I liked more of the things I saw him do than the things I thought he missed.

Cornerbacks: B-

Without Darius Slay, Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs both did a good job limiting the effectiveness of the Steelers receivers. Diggs even had a tackle out along the sideline in a one-on-one situation where he was able to wrap up and hold on to the receiver’s feet for a tackle, as ungraceful as it seemed.

The biggest surprise in the secondary from Friday’s game was Johnson Bademosi not only getting reps before names like Darrin Walls or even Alex Carter, but that he made a lot of plays, including a forced fumble. From the angles on TV, it didn’t look like Bademosi was beaten often by the Steelers’ wideouts as I could have anticipated from the way he looked in training camp. While I thought Bademosi was going to strictly be a special teams standout, I could see him getting work as a dime corner.

Safeties: B

During the first drive of the game, the Lions first-team secondary wasn’t tested much by Landry Jones. On an end-around play to Eli Rogers, Glover Quin, along with corner Nevin Lawson, was able to meet the Steelers receiver five yards past the line of scrimmage, doing a good job of limiting what could have been bigger play after the right side of the Lions front-seven made loose with their containment. Rafael Bush allowed a pass that should have been an easy interception go right through his grasp.

Kickers: A-

The Lions have two kickers on their roster, but it looks pretty certain that Matt Prater is going to the Detroit Lions kicker in 2016. He made all of his kicks, two field goals and an extra point.

His backup, Devon Bell, missed an extra point, telling you all you need to know about his chances to unseat Prater.

Punters: A

Sam Martin put the Steelers deep in their own territory on his only punt of the night, putting a charge into the ball, but also doing a good job of placing it inside the Steelers’ 10-yard line.

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