It happened again over the weekend. Another preseason game and yet another performance, at least from the starters, that was less than stellar for the Detroit Lions. The offense failed to convert in the red zone. The defense struggled enough that Tampa Bay’s third-string quarterback and second-string offense effectively drove on the Lions’ top unit.
“It’s a long season, it’s a long process, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Lions coach Matt Patricia told reporters after Friday’s game against Tampa Bay. “I think we’re still in that process.”
That process has worked well where Patricia came from, in New England, where the preseason is largely used for evaluation and getting various players reps in both advantageous and adversarial positions. And Patricia himself said Friday night things should look different in September, October and November (when games count) versus now (when they don’t).
It’s something he has echoed the past few weeks – as Detroit has not looked good in any preseason game when the starters were playing. All of that said, here’s what stood out from a another rough Lions exhibition.
The defensive front seven is going to be an issue: This isn’t new. There were some flashes against the Buccaneers that showed progress, particularly from Sylvester Williams and Kerry Hyder. But Detroit’s down-to-down pass rush has been unimpressive. How Patricia’s in-week game-planning can remedy that has turned into one of the top questions entering the regular season. If he can help there, then the Lions should improve. If not, it could be a rough year for Detroit’s defense.
It goes beyond the pass rush. The team’s run defense has not been good, either. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis missed multiple tackles Friday night, adding to a preseason where his coverage skills have shown to be questionable. He’s the Lions’ best linebacker, so that has to be an area of worry.
The offense “should” be fine: The protection is still going to be a concern – Matthew Stafford was sacked five times in the preseason in essentially three-plus quarters of play -- but until T.J. Lang returns it’s tough to give a full evaluation. The quicker Lang returns, the better it’ll be for the Lions. Frank Ragnow continues to look like a better-than-expected first-round pick. But the real reason to feel better about the offense is how it moved in the first half against the Buccaneers.
The red-zone failings against Tampa Bay – and all preseason – are dicey, but Detroit moved the ball well before reaching the red area. Each of the Lions’ four main backs averaged at least 4 yards per carry. And Stafford, when he wasn’t getting sacked, was finding his receivers with ease. His 9-of-18 line against the Bucs was a misnomer because of multiple drops. That, of course, could be another concern but like the protection, it might be best to see if that’s a preseason thing or if it translates to the regular season.
Some roster surprises could await: While the top-end players are set, there are going to be some difficult decisions for the Lions. Brandon Powell, the undrafted rookie receiver who has been one of the more consistent players in camp, is forcing Detroit into a tough decision whether to keep five receivers.
Hakeem Valles has arguably been the Lions’ top tight end in camp and received first-team reps. It would be a surprise at this point if he didn’t make the roster, but it could force the Lions to keep four tight ends. If they go with three, would it be Levine Toilolo or Michael Roberts who would be out of a job. The defensive line and linebacker depth remain a bit of a mystery overall, with a bunch of players being in toss-up positions – which is largely because none of them stood out. Same thing with the offensive line depth behind the starters and rookie Tyrell Crosby.
Bob Quinn has usually kept one person who has been a complete surprise each year. Powell was that guy for me originally, but he has played his way into the actual conversation. So here’s another name to watch – Leo Koloamatangi. The Lions clearly don’t seem to love their interior line depth and that Koloamatangi got some first-team work late against Tampa Bay tells me he might be closer to a roster spot than not. It would be surprising to see him beat out Joe Dahl and Kenny Wiggins – and I’m not sure that he will, to the point where I don’t think I’ll be putting him on my final 53-man roster projection – but his name is one that wouldn’t surprise me.