Saturday, I handed out grades for the offense of the Detroit Lions in their final preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. It was a pretty disappointing effort, especially for some position groups like wide receiver and tight end, but to flip our attention to the other side of the ball, it’s a different story. Whereas the depth at wideout and tight end, for instance, failed to make a case for a spot on this roster, making cuts on the defensive side of the ball is going to be filled with tough decisions. Many of these depth players on defense capped off their preseason the right way and it’s going to be hard to keep them off the roster.
Let’s grade out these position groups on defense one final time for this year’s preseason.
Defensive line - B
Similar to their first preseason matchup with the Buffalo Bills, the Colts were able to get whatever they wanted on the ground versus the Lions defense. On 30 carries, the Colts were able to rack up 165 yards and a touchdown, but yet again, the players along the defensive line weren’t as much to blame for the defense’s deficiencies against the run as the linebackers playing behind them.
As finals cuts will be coming our way soon enough, some of Detroit’s toughest decisions on final roster construction will be here. Bruce Hector turned in another stellar performance in this one, playing 32 snaps and earning a 90.3 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. Kevin Strong Jr. played just 11 snaps, but had a sack and another quarterback hurry in his limited playing time.
Another encouraging storyline from this game was an extended look at rookie Levi Onwuzurike who had another productive night—PFF had him credited with three total hurries on the night, and he looked like a player who is going to contribute early and often as part of the interior defensive line rotation.
EDGE - B
Edge is another position where it’s difficult to project exactly what Detroit is going to do here and it’s possible Friday night didn’t make things any easier.
Charles Harris sat out the preseason opener, but started on Friday night and was a big-time contributor in the pass rush. Harris had three quarterback hits in this one and played a well-rounded game. On the other side, Austin Bryant, a player this coaching staff seems to be pretty high on to begin with, had a huge game on Friday with four quarterback pressures and playing stout against the run—Bryant was credited with two stops against the run per PFF.
The Lions got another extended look at Julian Okwara as he played 39 snaps on Friday night, but he once again had a bit of an up-and-down performance. The second-year player had three quarterback pressures, a stop in the run game, but also missed a couple of tackles. Okwara has flashed some real potential as a pass rusher, but Harris might be the more seasoned of the two, so Detroit might find a way to keep both on the roster.
Linebackers - D
The group of linebackers for the Detroit Lions remains one of the thinnest positions on the team. I don’t think it’s any surprise projected starters Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone only played 11 snaps all preseason. With next to no depth at the position, the team clearly prioritized keeping their top linebackers healthy ahead of the actual football around the corner—and also get a clearer understanding of the depth at the position.
That lack of depth was on display Friday night as players Tavante Beckett and Anthony Pittman didn’t do anything to improve their stock and thus their chances to stick around for the 53-man roster. Both certainly are candidates for Detroit’s practice squad, but the Lions need help and they need it now.
Someone like Derrick Barnes, who made more Derrick Barnes plays on Friday night, is going to be counted on to contribute early. His ability to click and close in coverage is something this defense hasn’t had in years. On the other hand, Jalen Reeves-Maybin is making the team because of his special teams prowess, not because of what he brings to the table as a linebacker. And of course, the lingering question until cuts are announced, is whether Jahlani Tavai makes this roster. He had a less disappointing performance on Friday, getting home to the quarterback for a hit while playing just 11 snaps, but he also gave up a catch for 13 yards.
In the end, Friday was another missed opportunity by the linebackers. Plenty of snaps, plenty of chances to make plays against the run and in coverage, but the Colts players took it to this group over and over again.
Cornerbacks - B
Even though it seems like much is up in the air at this position in terms of who plays where and how often, I think the team has a good idea of which players are making the 53-man roster—outside of the nickel position. Part of that comes from seeing Corn Elder make an impact play when he intercepted Brett Hundley, part of that is the way Nickell Robey-Coleman has really bounced back from his early mistakes and miscues, and the final part is the emergence of A.J. Parker. All three had a solid showing on Friday night, but I’m not sure this roster has enough room for all three of these guys.
The play of Mike Ford, even though he gave up one big play in coverage—a 60-yard catch to Colts receiver Dezmon Patmon—has me really encouraged about him as a depth piece for this team. He made a ton of plays as a defender in the run game, had two pass breakups, and looked really confident for a player who was playing nickel cornerback for the majority of camp, but has now moved back outside.
Jerry Jacobs, a player firmly on the bubble, may have hurt his chances to make the roster with his play on Friday night. Jacobs gave up three receptions on three targets for 32 yards and looks like he’s lost some ground to safety-convert Bobby Price when he couldn’t afford a poor performance.
Safeties - B-
Safety was a position many were interested in following at the beginning of training camp, but things became pretty clear in a hurry. Tracy Walker and Will Harris, the team’s projected starters at the two safety positions, both had the night off on Friday. The next man off the bench, Dean Marlowe, had a sensational performance in the preseason finale. Marlowe was very active as a tackler, making four tackles, recording a stop, and ceding just one yard on the only reception he allowed on the evening.
Jalen Elliott made a big play in punt coverage, and alongside Alijah Holder, played the most snaps on defense for the night. Neither have done quite enough to make the roster, and C.J. Moore is the player out of this group who will make it because of his contributions on special teams.