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Thoughts on the Detroit Lions starters’ performances in preseason Game 1

Limiting mistakes will be at a premium for the Lions in 2021.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Detroit Lions starters only played a little over a quarter of football in their first preseason game, and the results illustrated some predictable concerns but also gave fans some hope things can improve.

Setting the table

While the “starters” were scheduled for two drives, it’s important to note that not all the regular players were available. Here’s a quick look at the projected regular season starters who did not play, along with their replacement.

  • RB D’Andre Swift was replaced by — Jamaal Williams
  • WR Breshad Perriman — Kalif Raymond
  • TE T.J. Hockenson — Darren Fells
  • DT Nick Williams and Levi Onwuzurike — Kevin Strong
  • DT Michael Brockers and Da’Shawn Hand — Jashon Cornell
  • NB Mike Ford was needed at second-team outside corner — AJ Parker started at nickel

In addition to needing to replace some key starters, it’s important to keep in mind things were very vanilla in play-calling. On offense, there were things absent, like pre-snap motion, which was something we saw a lot in camp. Additionally, there were some very basic formations on both sides of the ball with very little creativity exposed.

Thoughts on the Lions’ first-team offense

Things started out a bit rough. QB Jared Goff almost threw an interception on the first throw, Jamaal Williams gained little on the ground on the second play, followed up by RG Hal Vaitai and rookie Penei Sewell failing to protect, resulting in a sack. An ugly three-and-out.

With regards to the sack, Sewell’s getting a lot of heat on social media for his role in the play, but it appeared to me that Vaitai was the primary hole in that dam. Sewell did give up the edge on the play, but he wasn’t as much at fault on the play. That being said, it’s clear Sewell is still knocking the rust off after not playing for nearly two years, and his pass pro anchor needs to improve.

On the second drive, we saw what most expected from the Lions offense based on what we have seen at training camp. The Lions aren’t going to shy away from the run, Goff will check down rather than risk a turnover, but there will be an occasional deep shot or two to keep defenses honest.

When things go right, you get long sustained drives that typically result in points. But the inherent risk in this approach is that one penalty, mistake, or failed execution could derail the drive and result in no positive impact—like on the first drive.

The Lions’ second drive was 18 plays over 70 yards, exhausting nine minutes and 54 seconds, and resulted in a 28-yard field goal by Randy Bullock. On the drive, the Lions achieved seven first downs, three of them were successful third-down conversions.

Goff completed seven of his eight attempts for a total of 56 yards, but it was his one incompletion that was the difference between three and seven points. Here was his best throw, finding the turkey hole against zone coverage:

In addition to Tyrell Williams (in the above clip), Goff looked Amon-Ra St. Brown’s way just twice, but the rookie secured both catches in key spots, including converting one of the team's first downs. St. Brown doesn’t look intimidated by the bump in talent in the NFL and he should be a reliable target moving forward.

Jamaal Williams ran the ball nine times for just 15 yards but the fact that he got his number called on half the offensive plays illustrates the team's willingness to keep trying to run the ball to achieve balance.

“You just wanted to see them be able to create a drive, sustain a drive, find a way to get a first down, move the football,” coach Dan Campbell said at halftime. What you learn is that they were able to do it in preseason game one. That’s really all you learn, but it was good. It’s encouraging.”

Thoughts on the Lions’ first-team defense

The Lions were very leaky against the run, especially up the middle, but it’s worth remembering that the Lions' defensive line featured two third-stringers with their top-four defensive tackles not playing. Those struggles in the middle made it difficult to accurately assess the rest of the first team.

The story for the defense was the success of third-year DT Kevin Strong who was the catalyst for both of the Bills drives ending prematurely.

On the first drive, the Bills were driving but a big play from Strong put them in a hole on first down, and Buffalo eventually had to settle for a 50-yard field goal. On the play, Strong used his first-step quickness, along with a nice block shed move to penetrate the backfield and secure a three-yard tackle for loss.

On the second drive, Strong was double-teamed on a third-down run, and despite being initially blown off the ball, he anchored, shed, and stood up the ball carrier short of the first down line. Helping Strong on the play were LB Alex Anzalone and S Will Harris who also crashed on the play to assist.

Thoughts on special teams

Kick returns were split between running backs Godwin Igwebuike (who was up first) and Javon Leake. Igwebuike took his opportunity 26 yards, while Leake—who remained the returner after—took back three attempts for a 24.3-yard average. Not bad for the two backs on the bubble.

On punt returns, it was Victor Bolden’s job for the night, but with Raymond—who has been the primary option—with the starters, he may have been given the night off from the third phase.

Jack Fox is an absolute weapon and his second punt of 66 yards was a thing of beauty. Making the play even more impressive, Jalen Reeves-Maybin was in his typical clean-up role and he didn’t miss when he needed to secure the tackle. A reliable pair, Lions coaches have to be happy to have.