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Lions vs. Bills report card: Grading Detroit’s defense, special teams in preseason opener

How did the Lions defense and special teams make the grade in their Week 1 matchup against the Bills?

Buffalo Bills vs Detroit Lions Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After taking stock of the Detroit Lions’ performance on offense earlier in the day, let’s turn our attention to their play on the other side of the ball in Friday night’s preseason opener—and the other, other side of the ball in special teams.

Defensive line - B

Yes, the Bills were getting a lot of what they wanted on the ground in this one, but I don’t think much of it had to do with the performance from Detroit’s defensive front.

Interior defensive lineman Kevin Strong, a player firmly on the bubble for this Lions roster, made a couple of outstanding plays. His first impressive play came on Buffalo’s first drive where he shed his blocker and stopped Bills’ running back Devin Singletary behind the line for a 3-yard loss. On third down of that same Bills’ drive, the pressure created off the edge by Romeo Okwara forced a low and inaccurate throw from Mitchell Trubisky—leaving the Bills to settle for three points after receiving favorable field position. Recently signed Bruce Hector came in and played especially stout against the run and even flashed some pass-rushing acumen—notching a sack and three total pressures per Pro Football Focus.

Though some of the expected contributors sat out Friday’s preseason opener like Michael Brockers and Levi Onwuzurike, the play from the depth along Detroit’s defensive line certainly signaled some of our offseason intuition about this unit as a relative strength of the Lions defense.

Linebackers - C-

While the defensive line generated some push at the point of attack, got home on some plays in the way of sacks or stuffing the run, the linebackers seemed to struggle in holding up their part of the bargain. The Bills consistently picked up yards on the ground by way of missed tackles and missed opportunities in plugging gaps.

Starting linebackers Jamie Collins and newcomer Alex Anzalone each played just 11 snaps on Friday, but while Anzalone played fine, showing some of the athleticism and instincts that has put him at the top of Detroit’s depth chart, Collins looked lost in the shuffle and a bit rusty after the team has taken it easy with him during training camp.

Jahlani Tavai is a player who earned praise this offseason for his commitment to getting in better shape to fit what this defensive scheme will ask of its linebackers, but a lot of the same issues Tavai has struggled with in the past in terms of instincts and execution reared their ugly head in his 22 snaps on Friday night. Missed tackles and missed assignments in coverage, like on Devin Singletary’s 6-yard reception for a touchdown, aren’t going to help Tavai stick around when this roster trims its way to the regular season 53.

It wasn’t all bad, however, for Detroit’s second line of defense in their preseason debut.

After injuries and inexperience held back Julian Okwara in his first season, the second-year player from Notre Dame made his impact felt as a pass rusher on Friday night. As MLive’s Benjamin Raven pointed out Saturday morning, Julian Okwara played 49 snaps in the team’s preseason opener, just 20 fewer snaps than he played in all of 2020. During his extended playing time, the younger Okwara racked up eight total pressures on 28-pass rushing snaps which included the timely sack in the clip above. He certainly has some improvement to show as a run defender in the next couple weeks to carve out some more consistent playing time, but the Lions may have found a pass-rushing specialist to play opposite of his brother Romeo.

Again, it wasn’t all bad for the linebackers. Austin Bryant also made some plays against the run in spots, a good showing for another player looking to play his way off the bubble after starting camp on an all too familiar place for Bryant: the PUP. Also, we got a very brief look at fourth-round rookie Derrick Barnes, and early returns look really promising.

Playing just eight snaps after being limited in training camp, Barnes shows the evolution of linebackers from the Quinntricia era in Detroit. Here, he showed great instincts and execution in his ability to read the misdirection and pick up the leaking tight end—an adjustment the coaching staff must have made after the Bills used this play to burn the Lions a couple of times including on that blown assignment by Tavai above.

The other players anticipated to have a shot at making the roster like Anthony Pittman, a local camp favorite from Wayne State, Shaun Dion Hamilton, and Tavante Beckett didn’t play bad necessarily, but they didn’t do much to elevate expectations for this group.

Cornerbacks - C

The release of Quinton Dunbar shined the spotlight on Detroit’s youthful cornerback group and they were on display Friday night, front and center—for better and for worse.

Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye manned the outside while Mike Ford lined up as the team’s nickel defender. It was Ford who made a few plays in run defense that stood out, and a play where he took a good angle to chase down a Bills back out of bounds for a short gain. In fact, the cornerbacks willingness to be involved in defending the run was something to come away from this game encouraged about. From the aforementioned starters to safety convert Bobby Price—someone whose play on special teams as well has made him a legitimate contender to make this roster—Aubrey Pleasant has a group of players not afraid to use their shoulders.

As a unit in coverage, the cornerbacks didn’t look particularly bad, nor did they have many plays that stood out as impactful. Outside of Price’s pass breakup in coverage against Bills receiver Tanner Gentry and Nickell Robey-Coleman’s pass interference penalty on third-and-8 that extended Buffalo’s only drive that resulted in a touchdown, there wasn’t much to worry or write home about from this group.

Safeties - C

Much like the cornerbacks, the safeties played a pretty clean game, especially the depth players. Dean Marlowe had a well-rounded game where he showed his ability to both tackle and hold up in coverage. Jalen Elliott is another player on the roster bubble, but had a solid showing on Friday night. C.J. Moore, a player thought of being closer to lock to make this roster due to his special teams chops, played 41 snaps in this game against the Bills which seems like the coaching staff trying to get him ready to be defensive depth they can call upon should they need him.

Tracy Walker, a player who Lions fans are certainly rooting for after being miscast in Matt Patricia’s defense, had a rough go in his 11 snaps on Friday. A starter and the clear frontrunner at this position, Walker missed a tackle and looked a bit caught up in coverage in the preseason opener. For a group without much experience playing the safety position, Walker is going to be key for the backend of this Lions defense, so hopefully his play improves as the team progresses through the rest of the preseason.

Special teams - A

Detroit’s kicking battle appeared to be underway when the team waived Matthew Wright and brought in Zane Gonzalez this week to compete with Randy Bullock. Instead, Bullock got all three chances Detroit took on Friday kicking field goals. The veteran was perfect, converting on all three attempts, but with his longest attempt being from 28 yards out, he was hardly challenged.

Jack Fox continues to be an absolute tour de force on special teams. His three punts totaled 157 yards—including a long of 66—and two of the punts landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

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