Detroit Lions: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action

Jeff RisdonContributor IAugust 7, 2014

Detroit Lions: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    The Detroit Lions kick off their four-game preseason slate by hosting Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns this Saturday.

    It's the first chance for fans to see free-agent signings like Golden Tate and James Ihedigbo, not to mention the intriguing rookie class featuring Kyle Van Noy and Eric Ebron. 

    Saturday's game at Ford Field also marks the Lions coaching debut for Jim Caldwell and the new-look offensive and defensive schemes. While they won't break out all the tricks and wrinkles, expect to see glimpses of how the team will look going forward. 

    These two teams face each other every year in the preseason, which offers some familiarity and reference points. The final score doesn't mean anything; it's all about the players and how they perform in the first 2014 taste of enemy combat. 

    Here are six things to look for as you watch the game, either on local networks across the Mitten State or on the NFL Network's preseason live package. 

6. Punt and Kick Coverage

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    One of the ways NFL coaches decide on reserve players is performance on special teams. Backups have to contribute on the punt and kick units. 

    This is the best place for an undrafted free agent to make a mark. Racking up a thunderous tackle or creating a fumble with a well-placed swipe will do wonders for a player on the roster bubble. 

    It's especially true for reserve running backs, defensive backs and linebackers. For players like Jonte Green, Tahir Whitehead and Chad Abram, their special teams performances are just as important, if not more so, than how they play in the base offense offense or defense. 

    For greenhorns Caraun Reid and Larry Webster, it's a chance to gain confidence and show they can handle a role that could allow them to contribute as rookies. Otherwise, it's tough to see either being game-day active. 

    They could also unwittingly impact the battle at kicker, where Giorgio Tavecchio and Nate Freese are locked in a dead heat to win that job.

    Even though punter Sam Martin is the primary kickoff specialist, if either placekicker can establish himself as the more effective kickoff artist it does weigh in his favor. Coverage plays a big part in that. 

5. Ryan Broyles

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Oft-injured wideout Ryan Broyles is attempting to come back from his torn Achilles and reestablish himself as the Lions' top option in the slot. 

    The 2012 second-round pick has been practicing without limitations, and he's held up just fine. Playing in full-contact games against hungry opponents is a different kind of test, however.

    He's worked hard at strengthening his lower body and increasing his speed. And there's no questioning his work ethic:

    VIDEO: #Lions WR Ryan Broyles does extra work after practice on Thursday. http://t.co/HG8AUHwWwe

    — Paula Pasche (@paulapasche) July 31, 2014

    The Cleveland game offers him a chance to show his ability to cut and run against real NFL competition. Beyond just staying healthy, Broyles must prove he still has the innate ability to get open that made him the NCAA's all-time leading receiver while at Oklahoma. 

    After two torn ACLs and an Achilles injury, it's not a given that Broyles can recapture the magic. The road back starts against the Browns.

4. The Offensive Scheme

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    On a more abstract level, this is the grand unveiling of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's freshly complex scheme. 

    Lions fans will need sharp eyes to keep up with the constant personnel changes and constant pre-snap motion from one player or another. The offense is based on Lombardi's experience in New Orleans, where players shuffled in and out with great haste and variety. 

    It's unlikely the Lions will tip their strategic hand too much, but at the same time expect Lombardi to show just enough to make future opponents nervous. 

    For an excellent breakdown of the new offense, check out Justin Simon's feature at Sidelion Report. It should help train the eyes a bit for what should be an explosive performance. 

     

3. The Reserve Defensive Ends

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The starting defensive ends are all but set with Ezekiel Ansah and Jason Jones. Yet against Cleveland, neither will be seen very much; Ansah remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, while Jones isn't likely to play more than a series or two. 

    That provides a lot of reps for the reserves to sort themselves out on the depth chart. 

    Second-year talent Devin Taylor is all but assured of being the third end. He's looked strong in camp after finishing his promising rookie campaign with at least one QB hurry in each of his final six games, per Pro Football Focus. A successful preseason debut would only help bolster his status, not to mention his confidence. 

    It's the first chance to check out Darryl Tapp in a Lions uniform. The veteran from Virginia Tech has earned heaping praise from Coach Caldwell for his professionalism. He's also looked very good in camp. From my Friday camp notes at Detroit Lions Draft:

    –Darryl Tapp flummoxed Corey Hilliard with a jab step move and motored inside him for an easy backfield pressure. Later, Tapp quickly read a swing pass and swatted it down. He lined up at open end every rep I saw him.

    One of the surprises of camp has been journeyman George Johnson. As Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press notes, the slimmed-down physique is paying off in his quest to make the Lions. Now his audition progresses to facing blockers not clad in Honolulu blue. 

    For Andre Fluellen, now in his fourth stint with the Lions, camp is a barometer for his progress in making the move from tackle to end. He faces long odds to make the final 53-man roster, but his play here could very well be an audition for another team. 

2. The Third-Year Corners

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Lions attempted to overhaul their cornerback depth in the 2012 by selecting three players at the perennially thorny position. 

    Thus far, only third-rounder Bill Bentley has really established himself. He's been the primary nickelback in his two NFL seasons, though he's facing a challenge in rookie Nevin Lawson this year. Bentley hasn't exactly set the world on fire, however, earning a minus-4.6 rating from PFF in 2013. 

    Still, that's been the high point of the class. Neither Jonte Green nor Chris Greenwood, the other two picked that year, is a lock to make the Lions this year. 

    Green has helped his cause with some strong camp moments...

    Jonte Green was the best cornerback on the field today. I know, I am surprised by that, too. #Lions

    — Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) August 2, 2014

    ...which is good, because he was lousy when pressed into duty at the end of last season. A strong showing against Cleveland's middling receiver corps would certainly help in his quest to make it as the fifth or sixth corner.

    A strong outing might be even more imperative for Greenwood, who missed most of his first two seasons before piquing interest with a solid finale against Minnesota in 2013. He's got to prove he's worthy of one more chance in Detroit but faces stiff competition from Aaron Hester and Lawson for a roster spot. 

1. The Right Tackle Battle

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    Jeff Risdon

    Just like last year, the right tackle position is up for grabs as the Lions enter the preseason. 

    This year's combatants are LaAdrian Waddle and Corey Hilliard, both of whom got cracks at starting a year ago. Here is how Pro Football Focus graded them out in 2013:

     SnapsRun BlockingPass BlockingOverall
    Waddle  553   4.6  -0.2  5.5
    Hilliard 459   -4.8  -0.5 -3.5 

    While Waddle performed quite well and Hilliard was merely okay, there is no favorite at the moment.

    As Kyle Meinke of MLive reported last week, "neither player has separated himself through four days of training camp." That sentiment pervades after a few more practices, as both Waddle and Hilliard continue to underwhelm. 

    The Browns offer a strong defensive front, a good litmus test for how the two Lions tackles are doing. Hopefully one of Detroit's prospective right tackles takes the bull by the horns and asserts himself as the clear front-runner for the rest of the preseason. 

     

    All advanced stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF), which requires a subscription for premium content.

    You can interact with Jeff on Twitter @JeffRisdon. He'll be live tweeting from the Lions-Browns contest.