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Lions vs. Bills report card: Grading Detroit’s offense in preseason opener

Handing out grades for the Detroit Lions' first crack at competition in 2021.

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

It was safe, it was simple, it was obviously an attempt for the Detroit Lions to get a chance to put all kinds of plays on game film to review, see what works, and where they can perform better. Of the 90 players on Detroit’s roster, 51 of the players are new to the Motor City, the kind of renovation you can expect when a team is ushering in a new regime.

There’s a lot to digest here with new faces in new places all over the field and on the sideline, but with Week 1 of the preseason under our belts, let’s see where the Lions made the grade—and where they’re going to be looking to improve in Week 2. Let’s start with the offense.


Quarterbacks - C+

On the Lions' first two drives on offense, Goff lined up and did just about everything a quarterback is asked to do in the NFL. He was in shotgun sets with a runner by his side—sometimes even flanked by split-backs. He was under center running bootleg play-action. He did a little bit of everything in an effort to get some film to study and work from as previously mentioned.

But beyond all the different ways he took snaps, Goff looked rushed at times when he had time to make a play. There’s no better example than his first pass, a turnover-worthy throw intended for Tyrell Williams but nowhere near the mark. However, when he settled into the pocket, he also threaded the needle at times, like on second-and-long pass to tight end Darren Fells—which set up a third-and-short the Lions converted on the ground—or when he put a pass to Tyrell Williams along the sideline only his receiver could make a play on.

Though it was a safe approach that didn’t include any big shots downfield which is something many of us expect out of this offense given the personnel, Goff showed some of the good—and escaped some of the bad.

Enter Tim Boyle, the Lions' current backup quarterback. Things got erratic from the jump with Boyle, a guy who clearly has a strong arm that delivers the ball with some zip, but isn’t very accurate. Boyle finished 8 of 15 passing and had an interception get called back on a roughing the passer penalty. Third-string quarterback David Blough had a solid night in mop-up duty, completing the night’s longest pass for the Lions, but was sacked twice.

In the defense of Boyle and Blough, the reserves along the offensive line certainly didn’t do them any favors in keeping them upright. From the vantage point of this game, however, the backup quarterback job is an open competition until someone reaches up for that brass ring and takes it.

Running backs - B

First things first, let’s not overreact to Jamaal Williams’ performance in Friday’s matchup with the Bills. Many view Williams as a dependable complement to Detroit’s backfield and racking up just 15 yards on nine carries shouldn’t change that. Oftentimes, it looked like Williams was meeting contact before or at the line of scrimmage, so let’s reserve judgment until Detroit’s front line cleans it up in the run game.

When Jeremy and I previewed this week’s preseason opener against the Bills on First Byte, we both felt like the Lions were set at running back. D’Andre Swift sat out for maintenance purposes after getting dinged up in the early parts of training camp and rookie Jermar Jefferson’s ankle injury ultimately ended up not keeping him out of action, but those two seemed like roster locks as RB1 and RB3 respectively—especially Swift, obviously.

After watching the way Detroit’s depth at running back ran the ball, maybe it’s time to reconsider how solidified that RB3 spot is at the moment. After all, Jefferson is a rookie, and running for just 7 yards on four carries in your NFL debut certainly doesn’t inspire confidence—especially when you consider the way Craig Reynolds and Dedrick Mills took advantage of their opportunities on Friday.

Combined, the two backs ran for 81 yards on 11 carries with Reynolds being the story of the night—the newcomer to the Lions’ running back room this week was literally introducing himself to his teammates in the huddle.

Wide receivers - C-

For Detroit’s wideouts, a position group completely overhauled from a season ago, there was a sense of relief to see some of the team’s top receivers in action Friday night, especially when you consider their solid play.

Tyrell Williams, after missing the 2020 season, showed up ready to assume his role as Detroit’s No. 1 wide receiver. Williams looked controlled in his route running, made some key catches during his time on the field, and would have had an opportunity to put the exclamation point on the team’s second drive had he not been interfered with on a pass to him in the end zone.

Detroit’s new slot option, rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, looked every bit the player reports claimed he was in camp. His routes were crisp and he looked to have good timing with Goff. One of St. Brown’s best plays was when lined up as a split back next to Goff in the backfield, ran a rounded route back to the middle of the field where he caught a pass and turned upfield for a first down—only to be brought back on a holding penalty against Ragnow.

And while Detroit’s starters elicited some encouragement, there wasn’t much to write home about with the team’s depth at wide receiver. Plenty expect Victor Bolden to make this roster after a stellar start to training camp, but dropped passes and muffed punts aren’t going to cut it. Tom Kennedy led the team with four catches for 46 yards, Javon McKinley grabbed two passes for 40 yards—including a team-high 35 yarder from Blough—but the story here is the absence of Breshad Perriman, and just a single catch for 5 yards from Kalif Raymond—two players expected to be atop the Lions depth chart at wideout.

Tight ends - D+

Without the team’s No. 1 tight end in T.J. Hockenson, the Lions relied on Darren Fells to lead the way on Friday evening. Fells didn’t bring much to this game as a run blocker, but as mentioned earlier, he did have an impressive 9-yard snag from Goff. Hopefully, he settles in nicely as the team’s de facto No. 2 option at the position.

After Fells, this is a group of players who have yet to really distinguish themselves from one another in training camp, and nobody really did much to stand out for the right reasons against the Bills. For instance, Alize Mack, playing with the first-team offense, was called into motion by Goff, but had to be shouted and waved at repeatedly before he realized he was missing the signal. He proceeded to miss making a block that could have helped spring Jamaal Williams for a bigger gain. To make things worse, it happened again just before the two-minute warning with Boyle looking upset with Mack’s mental lapses.

The tight ends combined for two combined targets and catches—one as mentioned by Fells, another by Mack—and things will certainly look much different with Hockenson lining up, but the depth beyond him did little to inspire any confidence in this group’s depth.

Offensive line - C

After a shaky start, the Lions' first-team offensive line shook off the early-season jitters and showed some of the promise that’s generated talk of them being one of the up-and-coming units in the NFL.

Sure, there were some lumps, like when rookie right tackle Penei Sewell surrendered a sack on third down of the Lions’ first offensive drive to fellow first-round selection Gregory Rousseau—a play where Halapoulivaati Vaitai was as much to blame as Sewell—and when Frank Ragnow was flagged for a hold that wiped out a nice throw and catch from Goff to St. Brown for a first down, but overall, I liked a lot of what they did when they returned to the field after that first drive.

In pass blocking, outside of the early sack, the group gave Goff plenty of time to go through his progressions and make decisions—that aforementioned sideline pass to Tyrell Williams or the pass St. Brown caught on third-and-7 for a first down on that same drive come to mind as examples of how sound the first unit was in pass protection.

In the run game, some of the missed assignments by tight ends and receivers to pick up extra rushers help explain why Jamaal Williams gained just 15 yards on nine carries, but it’s clear this group will have to kick up the physicality of their play into another gear for them to realize their potential. Overall, it certainly wasn’t a perfect outing from the first team, but there was some tangible stuff that provides reasons for optimism—like grinding out an 18-play drive that lasted nearly ten minutes.

The second-team offensive line, a unit that’s poor performance has been well-documented during training camp, showed up as advertised: overwhelmed and heavy on mistakes. On a fourth-down attempt just before the half, the Lions needed just one yard, but this second team o-line failed to move the defense at all, resulting in Jefferson getting stuffed behind the line to gain.