The Detroit Lions host the New England Patriots for the “all-important” dress rehearsal preseason game on Friday. After facing two teams expected to struggles in 2017 (the Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets), the Detroit Lions will measure up against the league’s best. The returning NFL champions look even better this year on paper, giving the Lions the tough challenge they need to gauge where they may stand this season.
Here are 10 things to watch during Friday night’s game.
1. Pass defense vs. Tom Brady
The Detroit Lions pass defense has been very good against “starting” quarterbacks in the preseason. In two games, opposing first-string quarterbacks are just 4/11 for 38 yards and three sacks. But here’s the catch: Those quarterbacks were Scott Tolzien and Christian Hackenberg.
Tom Brady, on the other hand, has only played two series this preseason and is already 6/9 for 67 yards and a touchdown. This is will be the ultimate measuring stick for this questionable Lions defense.
2. Kenny Golladay with the first-team offense
Golladay only got one series with the first team last week, but with TJ Jones missing practice this week, chances are pretty good the rookie will be promoted to full-time duty with the ones on Friday.
The Golladay heat index has cooled off since only catching one pass in last week’s preseason game, but he should get both more looks and playing time on Friday.
3. Tavon Wilson’s debut?
Buried amongst a week’s worth of news was the fact that Tavon Wilson’s red no-contact jersey came off this week, according to ESPN’s Michael Rothstein. That means we could see Wilson for the first time this preseason.
Wilson is the presumed starting strong safety this year, but second-year Miles Killebrew has been getting most the reps in his absence. Is there a chance Killebrew challenges him for that spot? I’d like to see how Wilson plays, if the Lions choose to put him out there.
4. Can the Lions generate pressure against a good offensive line?
The Lions defensive front has put a surprising amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks through two games. In total, they’ve sacked the quarterback eight time already this preseason.
But the Patriots have a pretty solid offensive line. Take this excerpt from our 5 Questions with Pats Pulpit post on Thursday:
That’s a long list of serious upgrades, but perhaps the improvement that is most flying under the radar is on the offensive line where the team is extremely young and posed to improve.
This will be the defensive line’s first real test. It’s never easy to get to Brady, but if the Lions can manage to knock him down a few times in the first half, then there may be some real reasons for optimism along the front four.
5. Gronk vs. Jarrad: Can the Lions cover a tight end?
The Patriots are likely to take it easy with Rob Gronkowski, but he’s almost certain to be out there for some time. As Brian Phillips told us on our First Byte podcast, last week Gronk saw his first paying time in the preseason since 2012. He’ll get a little more taste on Friday.
The Detroit Lions absolutely could not cover a tight end last year, due to an undisciplined, unathletic bunch at linebacker. Now rookie middle linebacker Jarrad Davis will face the toughest test he’ll likely face all year, and it should be a good one.
6. Offensive line vs. weak Patriots pass rush
Much like the Lions, New England is struggling to find healthy pass rushers, especially after their third-round pick, Derek Rivers, went down with a potentially season-ending injury.
The Lions offensive line has looked shaky, to put things mildly. Last week, they surrendered three sacks, and their running game was non-existent. But because the Patriots are still figuring things out with their front four, the Lions offensive line should have a much better game than last week.
7. More Ameer Abdullah
Both Jim Bob Cooter and Jim Caldwell talked up the running game and Abdullah this week. “I do think we’re going to be better running the football this year,” Cooter said back on Tuesday.
Why is there reason to believe that’s true? Caldwell says to just look at the stats. “When Ameer’s in the game, and he’s healthy and he and Riddick are in the ball game, you look at our numbers.”
Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of numbers to look at with this offensive line. Abdullah has only carried the ball five times for 18 yards this preseason, which is hardly something to get excited about. Abdullah should get a lot more chances on Friday, but will he do more with them?
8. Quandre Diggs vs. DJ Hayden: Part 2
Last week, Diggs and Hayden were some of the two best Lions defenders on the field. Diggs was making special teams plays and a few on defense, while Hayden was shutting down receivers both on the outside and inside.
Their play has led many, including myself, to believe that the Lions need to keep both on the roster, but there’s still the question as to who will start in the nickel this year. That job is still very much up for grabs, and Friday could decide the winner.
9. Kick and punt return
No camp battle has been more competitive, yet ultimately so disappointing than the Lions’ return jobs. Even though Keshawn Martin distanced himself with a decent performance against the Jets, we’re still waiting for someone to really make an impact on special teams.
Jace Billingsley, Jamal Agnew, Dwayne Washington: Show me something. You’re all running out of chances.
10. Can Marvin Jones Jr. have a repeat performance?
With Golladay on the rise and Jones’ disappearing act towards the end of last season, some were starting to believe that Marvin could be on his way to getting replaced down the line. But Jones looked great at the Jets, making a case that he could have a rebound year in 2017.
The Patriots have very sticky cornerbacks, so Jones will likely have a tough time creating separation on Friday. But can he overcome that and haul in a few catches? It would go far in building confidence in him and the Lions pass offense.