Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gameday: Detroit Lions

Heinz Field

After months of waiting, the first preseason game is upon us.

Today is going to be one of the longest days of your life. 7:30 definitely can't come soon enough.

This preseason is going to be decidedly different than any one you have ever seen. Normally, the starters play a drive or two in the first game. However, because the team needs to get reps for all 4 quarterbacks, it will be interesting to see how much time each QB gets and how much time they get with the first team. Obviously, throwing to Hines Ward is a little different than throwing to Arnaz Battle.

If we had to take a guess, Ben will start the game and probably play 1 drive. Then Byron will come on and play another drive with the first team. After that, Byron may stay on for a second drive with the second team offense. Dixon should clean things up with the 2nd and 3rd team offense. Charlie Batch may see some time in the 4th quarter.

What to Watch For

1. Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks, Quarterbacks. Who will play, how much time will they play for, and who will they play with are all pressing questions.

2. #3 Outside Linebacker. The spot is up for the taking right now. Harrison and Woodley are easily the first two, but who will be the third? The competition right now is between rookies Jason Worlids and Thaddeus Gibson and special teams ace Patrick Bailey. Andre Frazier probably would have been the clear #3 but he was just placed on IR.

3. Short Yardage Back. Isaac "Red Zone" Redman is back for a second crack at the lineup after spending last year on the practice squad. The Steelers also drafted Jonathan Dwyer from Georgia Tech, and he will be Redman's main competition for the spot. Justin Vincent is still hanging around, but both Redman and Dwyer have looked better in camp.

4. Second year corners. Everyone says that former 3rd round pick Keenan Lewis has had a fantastic camp this year after spending all of last season injured. Joe Burnett saw some time on the field last season, most memorably for his dropped interception against Oakland. Rookie Crezdon Butler has been turning some heads in camp, and these 3 should be in a tight competition all of camp for the dime back position. If one of them has a good enough preseason, they may even press Willie Gay for the nickel back position.

5. Offensive Line. Flozell Adams, Maurkice Pouncey, Jonathan Scott. The Steelers brought them all in to help improve the line. From what we've heard, Jonathan Scott hasn't been very good. Flozell will have to adjust to playing on the right side, and we're still not sure where the Steelers will play Pouncey. Don't read too much into it if the Steelers only play Pouncey at guard against the Lions. The rest of the line will probably be a mish-mash of players as the coaches want to get looks at different players at different positions.

To help our readers get more versed in what is coming our way in games this season, we're working on putting together a new segment for gameday posts. We're calling it "Behind Enemy Lines" and it's a brief Q & A with a blogger from a rival team. Our first "Behind Enemy Lines" guest is our friend Ty from Lions in Winter.

1. Obviously this is the first preseason game, so neither team is going to show much in terms to scheme or gameplanning. That being said, what are you looking for from the Lions for this game to be considered a "success"?

On offense, I want to see a lot of completed passes. Last year's preseason was marred by drops and QB/WR miscommunications, and the regular season didn't go much better. The Lions spent a lot of money to bring in WR Nate Burleson, and traded for pass-catching TE Tony Scheffler. TE Brandon Pettigrew, last year's other first-rounder, just got back from ACL surgery--though it's sounding like he won't play against Pittsburgh. Bryant Johnson is allegedly having a strong camp (last year, Johnson missed camp due to injuries suffered from a Jackass-style golf cart rollover. Seriously). 2009 third-rounder Derrick Williams really struggled with concentration last season, and it's rumored his roster spot is in jeopardy if he doesn't turn it on. The targets need to be where they're supposed to be, and catch the balls that are thrown to them.

From a QB perspective, this is Matthew Stafford's first real offseason and camp. In a move I roundly criticized, Stafford ran with the twos all during '09 camp, so he'd only thrown a handful of passes to Calvin Johnson & Co. before the season started--and it showed. We're hearing lots about how he's finally building a rapport with his wideouts; I want to see it. In however-many reps Stafford gets, I'm expecting him to place the ball more catchably, and for the wideouts to be more ready for the mustard he puts on it.

Defensively, it's presumed that the Lions' front four will be vastly improved. DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DT Corey Williams, and (of course) #2 overall draft pick Ndamukong Suh will join talented young veterans DE Cliff Avril and DT Sammie Hill to form the one of the deepest units on the team. I'd sure like to see success from that group, but I'll be watching the back seven much more closely.

Starting MLB DeAndre Levy, himself a 2009 third-round pick with questions about his readiness, has missed almost all of camp with a sore back; he won't play. 2009 seventh-rounder Zack Follett, he of the playing with actual lions, will start at OLB, along with aging hometown boy Julian Peterson. With Levy in, there are a ton of questions about this unit; with him out it'll be full-scale panic. I want just want to see basic competence from the 'backers: fill the run gaps, don't give up long gains to TEs.

Then, of course, there's the secondary. The Lions' defensive backfield was a dumpster fire last year, save for rookie standout Louis Delmas (who'd have gotten a lot of looks for DRoY if he didn't play on a terrible team). They've replaced everyone but Delmas back there: out go Philip Buchanon and Anthony Henry at CB, in come Chris Houston and Johnathan Wade. Out goes, well, about six guys at the other safety spot, and in come, well, about six guys. Delmas is recovering from a groin thing, so, uh . . . well, if it's not a disaster, it's a success.

2. We're really excited for the potential Ndomukong Suh vs Maurkice Pouncey matchup in the second half of the game. Are there any other matchups you're looking forward to watching?

We've heard that Chris Houston has really stepped up at cornerback, recovering his 2008 form and doing a great job of staying on Calvin Johnson in practice. That's great and all, but both are still young players. I'd like to see Houston tested by veteran WRs like Ward and Randle el early on--and score well on those tests!

The Steelers have a great crop of pass-catching tight ends, with Miller and Spaeth. As I said above, the starting OLBs are an aging Julian Peterson--for whom coverage was never his strong suit--and a 2009 seventh-rounder Zack Follett, whose game is very much like Peterson's: blitz, blitz, blitz. Given that these are the starters, and the rest of the LB corps is essentially special-teams specialists, I'm praying that Follett steps up and impresses--or else tight ends are going to kill the Lions all season long.

3. Which Lions players are you looking for the most improvement out of during this preseason?

It's prove-it time for #3 QB Drew Stanton, a 2007 second-round pick who has mixed in some awesome preseason performances with some rough practices, and awful stretches of bad luck interrupted only by coach and coordinator changes. The movie of his career would be called "Quarterback, Interrupted," but at this point he has to prove he can serve as a solid #2 or move on. As a huge MSU homer, I'd love to see the former happen--but the signing of veteran Shaun Hill to a two-year deal bodes ill for Stanton.

Similarly, it's put-up-or-shut-up time for Matt Millen's last first-round pick, Gosder Cherilus. He has the size, strength, and attitude to be an excellent RT, but he seems to drift in and out of focus, sometimes playing like a man on fire, and sometimes playing like he's mentally sipping margaritas on the beach. The net result? Enough Unsportsmanlike Conduct and False Start penalty flags to curtain every window in Ford Field. Even though he's physically cut out for the man-to-man power blocking OC Scott Linehan espouses, he looked better in the ZBS preferred by Mike Martz. He's splitting 1st-team reps with 34-year-old Jon Jansen, who's the definition of a crafty veteran. But Jansen was cut from the Redskins two years ago for being a total liability in pass protection; if Gosder can't beat Jansen out then he'll never be a quality starter.

4. Any sleeper players that might be surprises in the game?

Third-year FB Jerome Felton has been a very impressive athlete through his first two years, but is developing into a dangerous two-way threat. Lions fans haven't seen a dynamic, multi-faceted fullback in a long time--but rumor has it Felton's quietly blossoming into the kind of Kleinsassery weapon that Scott Linehan has had so much success with.

Also in the offensive backfield, look out for second-year sixth-round RB Aaron Brown. He's incredibly explosive, albeit a bit of a space cadet. In last year's preseason opener against Atlanta, Brown ripped off a 32-yard TD run, and a 45-yard TD catch--and punctuated that catch with an awesome backflip. In the regular season, he carred 28 times at a 4.9 yard per-carry clip--but would have seen more if he didn't repeatedly run the wrong way, block the wrong guy, and otherwise get people killed out there. Still, though, check out this video from that preseason game:

Also, be afraid of DE Cliff Avril. A third-round pick in 2008, Avril came out of college as a prototypical 3-4 ROLB--but was drafted by Rod Marinelli to play rush end in his Tampa Two. Avril's displayed a real knack for getting around the corner, and despite openly preferring to play with a hand up, he's built his body up to 265 pounds, and is having a fantastic offseason. I'm really excited to see what he can do this year as a three-down DE.

5. Any other final thoughts?

The Lions, over the past ten years, have had a historically bad road record, with several of the top road-game losing streaks. I'll be most interested to see the early minutes, if the Lions can avoid catastrophic breakdowns on either side of the ball. I'm also hoping to see the several extremely young starters, like Jahvid Best and Zack Follett, get a healthy dose of reps--I'm more afraid of these young guns not knowing where they're supposed to be in the regular season, than of them getting hurt in the preseason! Ultimately, I'm just hoping for a tough, consistent, physical performance on the road against one of the most tough, consistent, physical franchises in football.

Go Steelers!

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