10 Things We Learned About the Detroit Lions in Preseason
In less than one week, we will have actual regular-season football to discuss. Until that time, however, we will focus on what action the football gods have given us: the preseason.
After four preseason games, each of which I've watched at least twice, there are some fairly visible conclusions to draw about the Lions. While it's risky to put too much stock into games that are as much about talent evaluation and experimentation as actually trying to win, it's still hard to ignore several recurring themes.
Here are some things the preseason taught us about these Detroit Lions.
The Lions Have Enviable Quarterback Depth
At his worst, Stafford is an average NFL starting quarterback who puts up prolific numbers. At his best he's a rifle-armed surgeon who coolly eviscerates opposing defenses like few others can.
Throughout the preseason, both Shaun Hill and Kellen Moore consistently played better than their depth chart counterparts on other teams. I wrote about their value when issuing the team report card. Moore is a very pleasant development as the third in line; he would be the primary backup on several other teams, including every NFC North foe.
Most teams would be devastated if they lost a quarterback of Stafford's caliber. Think of the final year of the Manning era in Indianapolis, or how badly the Steelers floundered sans Ben Roethlisberger last season. While Stafford is in no way as accomplished as those two signal-callers, he's still a big-time talent.
Yet the Lions are blessed to have perhaps the best backup in the league in Shaun Hill and a promising up-and-comer in heady Kellen Moore.
Matthew Stafford Remains Consistently Inconsistent
As awesome as he can be at times, Matthew Stafford is infuriatingly inconsistent.
The New England game provides an excellent microcosm. Stafford came out with guns blazing, completing nine of his first 13 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. He then completed just one of his next nine throws, several of which missed badly. From that excellent start, Stafford finished the game 12-of-25 for 166 yards and the one touchdown.
In other words, his final 12 passes produced just 23 yards.
Sadly, this is nothing new for Stafford. What is more troublesome is his apparent nonchalance towards his cold spells.
I won't say Stafford doesn't care because that is patently untrue, but his demeanor when he starts a game 4-of-11 doesn't adequately reflect the negative gravity of the situation. I'm not alone when I say I would love it if Stafford snapped at a receiver or slammed a helmet or even altered his facial expression from something other than casually annoyed.
There is still hope that Stafford will mature into a steadier thrower with more consistent mechanics. His arm talent is outstanding and his precision can be great at times. Getting Stafford to play at that level more frequently is the difference between this offense being good or fantastic.
Unfortunately, the only thing consistent about Matthew Stafford is his inconsistency.
Reggie Bush Is Going to Catch a Lot of Passes
When the Lions signed Reggie Bush, the expectation was that Bush would provide a real shot in the arm to the running game. During the preseason, however, Bush struggled to run the ball effectively.
That doesn't mean Bush failed to make a significant impact. His receiving skills added a dynamic dimension to the offense. Many times the quick passes to Bush turned into the most effective way to move the ball down the field.
Take the Cleveland game, the third preseason contest.
On the first three drives, the Lions went three and out. Bush was visibly frustrated on the sidelines and decided to take things into his own hands. On the first play of the fourth drive, Bush took a simple swing pass and sashayed around several tacklers for an 18-yard gain. On the next drive, Stafford looked Bush's way three times in four plays, all short-range passes with Reggie in space.
Bush might hold more value as a receiver than a runner. He's the queen on the chessboard, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has freedom to use Bush to dictate matchups. Expect to see Bush isolated on a linebacker in the slot or flaring out as a quick safety valve. His ability to create after the catch serves nicely as an extension of the running game.
Earlier I predicted that Bush would catch 59 passes, but now I believe that Jim Schwartz was right when he said Bush could catch 80. If the receiving corps struggles, and it might, even Schwartz's estimate might be conservative.
Personal Fouls Remain a Major Problem
Ask most casual NFL fans one thing they know about the Schwartz era in Detroit, and one of the most common answers will involve the egregious lack of discipline.
Some will focus on the embarrassing off-field issues, but many will also bring up the raining barrage of personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties incurred over the last four years.
Unfortunately that yellow tide continues to stain the team.
Rational minds would think that Jim Schwartz would have had enough by then, but whatever message he is preaching about discipline is not getting through. Both Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley picked up late hit flags on plays where the Lions forced turnovers. Schwartz finally held someone accountable when he benched Willie Young for his asinine taunting penalty, wagging his finger in Tom Brady's face in full view of the referee.
Expect the flags to continue to rain down in the regular season. Chronic, endemic lack of discipline does not get cured overnight.
The Offensive Line Is Going to Be Fine
Lions fans love to fret about the offensive line. It's been a perennial parlor game to whine about the mediocre pass protection and often-ineffective run-blocking.
Those complaints have largely been founded in a false reality.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) the Lions ranked third in pass protection in each of the last two seasons (Note: the table is sortable by column). The run-blocking, while not strong, ranked 18th in 2012. That's not exactly as awful as many would have you believe.
I think that this season will bust that myth completely. During the preseason, the offensive line played quite well considering it features three new starters. The upgrade in athleticism with Riley Reiff at left tackle and Larry Warford at right guard should help the Lions improve upon that No. 18 ranking.
Also, the depth is considerably upgraded. Dylan Gandy looked solid as an interior reserve, while Leroy Harris earned a spot with his powerful run-blocking. Gandy outplayed veteran center Dominic Raiola, and there could be a changing of the guard before the season ends.
I've gushed repeatedly over undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle, who appears poised to ascend to a starting role sooner than later. He and Warford annihilated the Bills defense in the final preseason game.
Sam Martin Was Worth the Fifth-Round Pick
A lot of profanities were spouted back in April when the announcement came that the Lions chose Appalachian State punter Sam Martin with the 165th pick of the draft. Bleacher Report's own Aaron Nagler spoke for a lot of draft pundits and Lions fans with his indignant derision in the video above.
Yet Martin has silenced those critics, the ones who actually watched anyway, with an excellent summer.
His very first preseason punt traveled 54 yards and hung in the air for five seconds, forcing a fair catch at the 10-yard line. Martin's coffin corner boot against the Patriots, a 57-yard effort that landed just inside the left hash mark at the 5-yard line and bounced almost 90 degrees to the left before rolling out of bounds at the one, is one of the greatest punts you'll ever see.
The Lions haven't had a consistent punter in years. Nick Harris was never more than an average punter in his strangely long Detroit tenure. This franchise hasn't had a punter finish in the top five in yards per punt since Greg Montgomery in 1994.
Martin might very well end that string as a rookie.
The Secondary Can Be Very Good...if Healthy
The defensive backfield has been a thorn in the paw for years. A rotating cast of has-beens and never-will-bes have seen far too much action in the Detroit secondary.
That appears to have changed.
The free-agent signing of safety Glover Quin has brought competence and stability to the strong safety spot. A healthy Louis Delmas turns free safety from a black hole into a position of positive impact. Left corner Chris Houston is also healthy and looked solid in preseason, while rookie second-round pick Darius Slay seized the right corner job with his strong burst from the gate.
Even better, there is real depth for once.
The gamble on veteran Rashean Mathis appears to have paid off. He was sharp and active in his preseason look. Second-year slot man Bill Bentley is clearly improved, though he still has some room for growth.
More than just the personnel changes, this group showed real tangible confidence throughout the preseason. Even when they made mistakes, they bounced back with the same swagger on the next drive. That is real progress if it carries over into the regular season.
The Recent Drafts Have Not Produced Enough Talent
This is a tricky subject for Lions fans. After years of abhorrent drafting under pillar of ineptitude Matt Millen, getting a GM that could get even a first-round pick right was a breath of fresh air.
His successor Martin Mayhew has clearly guided the Lions to a more successful place. Yet the successes would be far greater if Mayhew were better at finding more draft picks that could contribute.
More than half his picks from his first three drafts, 12 of 21 to be exact, are no longer with the team. These are the players who would be in their third through fifth seasons, the time when most hit their primes.
Instead the Lions have to scramble for street free agents to fill the holes.
It doesn't help that three of the final four picks from this year's draft failed to make the team. Tight end Michael Williams wound up on injured reserve with a broken hand, which definitely qualifies as a stash job.
Wideout Corey Fuller and linebacker Brandon Hepburn both found themselves among the final cuts and will spend their rookie seasons on the practice squad. Two picks from 2012, DE Ronnell Lewis and CB Chris Greenwood, also failed to make the roster.
Other teams have similar woes, so it's not all that unusual for many draft picks to wash out quickly. But in Detroit, because of the soul-sucking blackness under Millen, the failures stand out more acutely.
No Calvin Johnson Equals Offensive Doom
After watching the first-team offense perform both with and without Calvin Johnson, it is abundantly clear that he is the most valuable player on the offense.
Johnson sat out the final three preseason games with a minor knee injury. What happened in his absence was not pretty; the rest of the Lions wideouts proved they could not step up any further rungs on the depth chart.
Nate Burleson in particular struggled mightily, unable to get separation from the tighter coverage that Johnson normally pulls away from him.
Megatron should be fine for the regular season, not to mention well-rested. These Lions desperately need him to stay that way, because the passing game without him is like a hip hop concert with a mime doing the rapping.
It's Too Bad the Lions Aren't in the AFC East
Detroit played three of the four teams in the AFC East during the preseason. The Lions bested the Jets, Patriots and Bills by a combined score of 111 to 39.
What really stood out in all three games was how much deeper the Lions were across the board.
Injuries are inevitable during the NFL season, and that superior depth would give the Lions a significant advantage in late-season divisional matchups.
Obviously the New England game can be considered an aberration with the uncharacteristic turnovers by the Patriots. But the Lions were quite clearly the dominant team against the Bills and Jets. Given the quarterbacking issues for both teams—Kellen Moore would have a legitimate shot at starting for either franchise—I strongly believe the Lions would sweep them both in the regular season.
Alas, come the regular season, the Lions don't get to play a single AFC East foe.