Detroit Lions 2013 Preseason Review: Who Are These Guys?
OK, lets all come in off the ledge. Oh, and you should also put down that Kool-Aid. Let's try to find some middle-ground upon which we can rally as fans. I'm doing my part by not punting poodles or throwing inanimate objects at my flat-screen.
What in the hell is going on out there?!
—NFL legend Vince Lombardi
A Call for Cooler Heads to Prevail
My friend Duane made a very astute observation regarding preseason Week 2. He pointed out that the Packers lost 35-10 to the Browns in 2012, but went on to win the NFC North. In 2004, the Patriots laid an egg in Cincinnati. The Bengals hung a 31-3 loss on the eventual Super Bowl champs. In 2008, the Steelers were dumped by Buffalo in the preseason. They too would go on to win the Super Bowl.
So while the Lions' preseason performance has done little to wet our appetites for a successful 2013 campaign, it isn't a harbinger of doom either. I motion that we make Duane the chairman of the Cooler Heads Prevailing committee.
What is Going on?
Playing possum in the preseason isn't a radical concept in the NFL. Teams are loath to open up playbooks on either side of the ball. That film becomes a scouting tool for a future opponent's game plan. We all get that, but there are some legitimate concerns that need to be addressed by a coaching staff on the bubble.
Let's discuss the state of the Lions after two exhibition games. My depth chart is current and might provide some insights. Let's see if we can answer the question: Who are these guys?
Statistics are provided by ProFootballFocus.com's Premium Stats (subscription required) unless otherwise specified.
As was the case in training camp, the question is, "Which Matthew Stafford will show up today?" This refrain is becoming as tiresome as all the questions about his mechanics after an uneven performance. Stafford is notorious for slow starts on game day and I don't expect to see an epiphany anytime soon. Starting hot and staying hot is Stafford's last remaining obstacle to greatness.
On a brighter note, backup QB Shaun Hill continues his solid training camp performance with consistently decent play in his preseason game reps. He seems to have conquered his propensity for "sailing" the ball on intermediate and deep routes. Hill's stock is most definitely on the rise in a league where there is a glut of decent backup QBs.
Keeping a third QB on the roster is becoming a luxury that may be unaffordable due to greater depth issues at other positions. Lefty Kellen Moore, through no fault of his own, could fall victim to a numbers game as the cuts approach. Moore has a good grasp of the Lions' offense and has made some plays in camp and preseason.
Will he make the cut after distancing himself over Thaddeus Lewis?
The Running Backs
We can be certain that Reggie Bush (36 snaps), Mikel Leshoure (21 snaps) and Joique Bell (33 snaps) will get the most snaps. It remains to be seen as to who will be the first RB off the bench when Bush is spelled. My money is on Bell, who has been the better all-around back throughout camp and the preseason.
It might even be premature to pencil in Leshoure as a lock as the RB3. He isn't exactly lighting it up. RB Theo Riddick (31 snaps) grades out poorly in receiving and pass blocking—two areas that need some intensive work. The speed component that will be most needed on special teams could be provided by Steven Miller (13 snaps), but Riddick seems to be winning that battle.
Keeping a fifth running back on the roster is extremely unlikely. There's no room for Montel Williams.
The Tight Ends
This is interesting group in training camp that has been largely ignored in two preseason games. Brandon Pettigrew (37 snaps) will continue to be the top option for Detroit QBs. He's been targeted four times, catching three for 20 yards. He's dropped only one ball and is ranked a dismal 83rd by PFF based on some shoddy pass and run blocking.
Tony Scheffler (21 snaps) has been targeted only three times during the preseason, where his blocking has actually improved. Being healthy in 2013 will be key for Scheffler if we are to see more of his TD dance moves than we saw in 2012. He is 28th on PFF's TE rankings.
Michael Williams (34 snaps) has been an average pass blocker but has whiffed on too many run-blocking assignments for my tastes. His performance in this area has to improve immediately as his PFF grade of -2.5 is eclipsed by only one other Lions player, OT Corey Hilliard.
Joseph Fauria (66 snaps) has been getting a long look by Lions' coaches. The film shows an average pass blocker, but he's been a surprisingly good run-blocker. In fact, Fauria is PFF's eighth-ranked TE overall. He's been targeted four times, catching two for 12 yards.
Keeping a fourth TE on the roster seems far more unlikely now than it did during camp. Williams will have to step up his blocking if he wants to wrestle that TE3 spot away from Fauria, who seems to improve by the week.
The Offensive Linemen
The O-line is the unit that is under the brightest spotlight this preseason. The infusion of new talent is having a predictable effect: inconsistency. However, the preseason has been a useful tool in determining who is standing out in position battles at RG and RT.
As a unit, the O-line has allowed only two sacks and no QB hits. The bad news is that they've allowed a whopping 15 QB hurries—a stat that hopefully will improve during the regular season when the big, ugly starters are sorted out.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to me is the performance of G/C Dylan Gandy (61 snaps). He's allowed only one QB hurry and has been a far better blocker than Dominic Raiola (38 snaps), who continues to struggle in run-blocking assignments and has allowed a QB hurry. Gandy's performance ranks 12th among NFL centers according to PFF.
G/C Rodney Austin (34 center snaps) has been a reliable blocker. At LG, Austin has been disappointing over 35 snaps where PFF ranks him at 79th. Austin will have to dramatically improve in guard techniques if he wants a roster spot.
LG Rob Sims (38 snaps) has been solid if not spectacular. Lions fans needn't be concerned with this position. Sims is PFF's 13th-ranked LG.
The competition at RG has been interesting to say the least. Jake Scott (43 snaps) looks like the favorite to start until rookie Larry Warford gets up to NFL specs. Warford's 88 snaps lead the offense while the coaching staff refines his technique and footwork. In 61 pass-blocking snaps, Warford has allowed two QB hurries.
Watch as Warford's PFF ranking improves with experience. He's currently PFF's seventh-ranked OG.
Guards Darren Keyton and Austin Holtz look like certain cuts.
Detroit's tackle situation remains average at best. As a group, the tackles are average pass blockers, but run blocking remains an issue.
The LT job belongs to Riley Reiff (48 snaps) and he's performing at a level that is commensurate with his experience and talent level. Reiff has allowed a sack and a QB hurry, both of which were allowed on inside pass rushes.
Reiff has split reps with Corey Hilliard (62 snaps) and Derek Hardman (50 snaps) at LT. His progress is noticeable on film, but defenses will throw more inside pressure at him until he proves some consistency in this regard.
Jason Fox (52 snaps) has, in this analyst's view, locked up the RT starting job, but his performance isn't dominating by any means. In fact, rookie LaAdrian Waddle has made such great strides that he will be a threat to win the starting RT assignment this year. Waddle (57 snaps) is PFF's 12th-ranked OT. He gets the highest marks in both run and pass blocking among Lions' tackles. At the very least, Waddle has a firm grip on a roster spot.
The biggest disappointment has to be T/G Corey Hilliard, who is the team's worst run blocker thus far. As a pass blocker, Hilliard (62 snaps) ranks third among Lions tackles. His roster spot is not likely in jeopardy, but his reps will taper off as Waddle continues to excel.
Taken as a whole, the O-line will be about as productive as it was last season unless Gandy can unseat Raiola at center. The rookies (Warford and Waddle) will continue to see greater involvement with both eventually getting starting roles. Warford will be an All Pro left guard in the future. Waddle's ceiling is as yet unknown, while the ceiling of Fox and Hilliard seems to have been reached.
The Wide Receivers
Beyond the obvious fact that Calvin Johnson will be the Lions' top weapon on offense, the receivers have had a largely uneven preseason performance in an offensive scheme where the route-tree resembles the pass patterns at your company picnic.
It's the back-end of the depth chart that's seeing the most targets from four Lions' QBs. The recently released Mike Thomas (along with that 2014 fifth round draft pick) got the most targets (8) along with Matt Willis (7). Willis has made a nice push with some circus catches. Terrence Austin's eight targets are starting to look like a film package for his next job interview.
Michael Spurlock has looked decent in limited duty and has value on special teams.
Patrick Edwards and Nate Burleson have been running pedestrian routes and look like traffic cones so far.
I find it odd that Kris Durham has been targeted only twice. This could be an indication that he's made the roster. Likewise, Corey Fuller and Ryan Broyles have seen no action. Broyles is nursing a rehabbed knee. What's up with Fuller? Your guess is as good as mine.
The Defensive Line
Another unit whose performance can only be measured in preseason game action, the D-line has produced some highs and lows along the way. Injuries to DEs Jason Jones and Israel Idonije have hampered evaluations. This proved to be a fortuitous circumstance for rookie DEs Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor, who have seen increased snaps along with second-year DE Ronnell Lewis.
As was the case in 2012, DE Willie Young (47 snaps) is having an outstanding preseason and productive training camp. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on Young, who inexplicably disappeared during the 2012 regular season. Young is currently ranked second in DE43s by PFF.
Second-year DE Ronnell Lewis finally gets it. His growth can be readily seen in film where his run defense has shown great improvement. He is PFF's 11th-ranked DE43 based largely on his run-stuffing prowess. Lewis has one of the Lions' two sacks.
Rookie DE Devin Taylor has been a revelation of speed and power off the edge. He engages blockers so quickly that they seldom have a chance to anchor. He needs to develop an inside pass-rush technique in order to be dominating presence off the edge. He is PFF's fifth-ranked DE43 and we have yet to see his ceiling.
I expected rookie DE Ziggy Ansah (45 snaps) to have trouble matching up with perennial All Pro LT Joe Thomas in Cleveland. Thomas makes the best DEs in the game disappear. This will give the Lions' coaches plenty of teaching points in the film room where Ansah is concerned. I'm looking forward to Detroit's regular season game with Cleveland to see how Ansah responds. Ansah is PFF's 18th ranked DE43.
DE Jason Jones (31 snaps) has been hampered by hamstring and knee issues. the six-year veteran is PFF's 30th ranked DE43 and will probably be relegated to a backup role in the rotation due to the athleticism of Ansah, Young and Taylor.
The DTs are simply amazing. Ndamukong Suh (46 snaps) and Nick Fairley (33 snaps) are the best interior defensive line tandem on the planet. Fairley is PFF's top-ranked DT/NT while Suh checks in at No. 5.
DT Andre Fluellen (40 snaps) was brought back as an unrestricted free agent. "Flu" is quietly having his best year as a pro, leading the team with five QB hurries. He is PFF's sixth ranked DT/NT.
Beyond these beasts, DT C.J. Moseley was expected to be the first off the bench going into training camp. Moseley (40 snaps) has been extremely disappointing, especially against the run. Ogemdi Nwagbuo (39 snaps) looks like a situational pass-rush specialist. Jimmy Saddler-McQueen (49 snaps) doesn't stand out in any facet of DT play.
The Lions continue to look for an upgrade at the fourth DT roster spot. This week, they've signed UDFA John Drew and former Broncos veteran Justin Bannan. Expect both to see extended duty in the final two preseason games.
The defensive ends look set pending the return of Idonije. A great looking group that has a nice blend of experience, speed, strength and athleticism. The DTs will again be the heart of the defense and should be the most disruptive force in the NFL. A fourth DT has yet to step up and seize a roster spot.
If you read my pre-training camp assessments, you were probably depressed at the prospects. The woeful performance of this unit has carried over to the preseason. Missed tackles and poor angles to contact are so bad that I wonder how LB coach Chris Kocurek keeps his job.
Coverage issues have an almost systemic feel to them. Be warned, Lions fans, that attacking the LBs will be a prominent component of every opponent's game plan.
How bad is it? Of 168 players who accumulated stats as ILBs during the preseason, Stephen Tulloch ranks 149th. Travis Lewis checks in at 153rd.
The OLBs fared little better. If they've passed your eyeball test, see an ophthalmologist immediately.
Of 108 OLB43s who accumulated stats, Tahir Whitehead (53 snaps) is in 95th place. Ashlee Palmer (48 snaps) is in 79th place. Travis Lewis (28 snaps) and Brandon Hepburn (17 snaps) are tied at 48th.
DeAndre Levy (39 snaps) has been the best OLB thus far, but comes in at 30th place—one spot behind Ernie Sims.
The single ray of statistical sunshine can be found in Jon Morgan, who is PFF's seventh-ranked OLB43 after playing only 26 snaps.
I wonder how Morgan would perform with the first team. Based upon what we've suffered through so far, I'd give the kid a shot. He can't be worse, can he?
The Defensive Secondary
This group was hailed as the most improved group on the team. The addition of new talent in the form of safety Glover Quin and second-round draft pick CB Darius Slay have had a stabilizing effect, but neither have had a distinguished preseason.
The uneven play of the remainder of the secondary has given cause for concern, if not outright alarm. Of 256 CBs who have seen preseason action, Slay (54 snaps) is Detroit's top CB at a lowly 61st place.
LCB Chris Houston (39 snaps) has covered effectively but his run defense is among the worst in the NFL. Tackling issues have also plagued CB Bill Bentley (49 snaps). D.J. Johnson (54 snaps), who was coming on late in camp hasn't impressed in coverage or run support.
Veteran CB Ron Bartell (21 snaps) has played himself out of the starting RCB job with a 242nd place PFF ranking. Durability issues are such a concern that his roster spot could be jeopardized. DeQuan Menzie looks like a below-average depth option as a nickel CB.
The Lions will probably take a longer look at CBs Ross Weaver, Myron Lewis and newly acquired Rashean Mathis for the purpose of making fair evaluations as cut day approaches.
The safeties are as much an enigma as the corners are. S Don Carey's coverage woes have earned him a 208th place rank among 213 NFL safeties. His 59 snaps have produced a QBR against of 158.3. Chris Hope (62 snaps) can't stop the run and his coverage has been a non-factor. Like Quin, Hope looks too slow in film.
Speaking of non-factors, S Louis Delmas continues to have trouble getting healthy.
Glover Quin (39 snaps) hasn't excelled in coverage or run support. On film, Quin looks slow.
Two players who should see some increased snaps are Trevor Coston (17 snaps) and Martavius Nelloms (19 snaps). Detroit's two best safeties (statistically) need to be tested against opponent's first-string players.
Kicker David Akers has a lock on the FG duties, but it remains to be seen whether he, or punter Sam Martin will handle kickoffs.
Kicker Håvard Rugland was impressive enough to earn another shot at the NFL. Whether he finds a home on the Lions' practice squad or gets claimed off waivers, Rugland's progress has earned rave reviews.
Patrick Edwards has the edge as your punt return specialist. Steven Miller and Theo Riddick are battling for the kickoff return duties. This one is too close to call.
The blocking and tackling have been much improved this season. I hope I didn't jinx the team with that statement.
The Randy Award Update and Poll
Which UDFA player will win the 2013 Randy Award?
It's a two-player race to the practice squad! This year's winner could actually make the 53-player roster. TE Joseph Fauria has a 108 vote lead over K Håvard Rugland, 614-506.
The winner will be announced September 1.
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