Detroit Lions: What We've Learned Through Week 3 of Preseason
The Detroit Lions are now finished with their first three preseason games. A pair of 13-12 home wins and a last-minute road loss to the Oakland Raiders have provided revealing glimpses into what the 2014 regular season is probably going to look like.
It's a difficult paradox. Everyone tries to downplay the importance of the preseason, yet it's really the only empirical evidence upon which we get to base conclusions. These preseason contests have introduced several new Lions while highlighting the changes of several returning players as well.
The starters are essentially done with the preseason, as the final contest against Buffalo will be all about the reserves and those fighting for the final few roster spots.
Here are a few things we've learned about these Lions after the first three preseason games.
Golden Tate's Presence Cannot Be Overstated
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has put up with relative ineptitude at the wide receiver position (beyond Calvin Johnson, of course) his entire Detroit career.
The names—Bryant Johnson, Titus Young, Nate Burleson, Kris Durham—change, but the meager results remain problematically underwhelming.
This season will be different. In signing free-agent Golden Tate, the Lions have finally solved the perennial problem of having a viable complementary threat to the All-Pro Johnson.
After visiting Lions camp, the MMQB gushed over his potential, calling Tate "football’s most well-rounded receiver under six feet tall. He can block, elude defenders and catch pretty much anything. He has the potential to take this offense to another level."
He's looked very impressive and natural in the offense throughout camp and in fairly limited preseason game action. Tate should make a major impact in his first season in Detroit.
The First Round of Cuts Have Begun
It's pretty clear that new head coach Jim Caldwell doesn't waste time making decisions. Even though the Lions have until 4 P.M. ET on Tuesday to get down to 75 players on the roster, the team made several cuts just hours after the third preseason game against Jacksonville concluded.
The #Lions have released: G Alex Bullard, G A.J. Dalton, DT Greg Hickman, RB Steven Miller, DE Kris Redding and WR Conner Vernon— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) August 23, 2014
These releases are not surprising, though I did think Dalton and Hickman had shown enough to merit a slightly longer look; Hickman was the team's highest-rated defensive player per PFF through the first two preseason games.
Detroit also placed sixth-round rookie T.J. Jones on the PUP list, which means the wideout from Notre Dame will miss the first six weeks of the season.
As Jones told Kyle Meinke of MLive recently, he's experiencing nerve pain and issues in his surgically repaired shoulder. If it isn't better at the end of the PUP period, Jones will wind up going on injured reserve and miss his entire rookie campaign.
The Secondary Still Needs Some Work
Scenes like the one pictured here, this one an Allen Hurns touchdown from Blake Bortles on Firday night, have been far too common in recent seasons. The Lions coverage has been a step late and a count slow to react for years now.
The coaching change has apparently not cured the ailment.
Starting corners Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis have generally played solidly in preseason, though both have some negative plays on the ledger too. PFF has negative grades on the starters in pass coverage, the most critical component of their job.
The depth chart at cornerback behind those starters remains completely unsettled. Unfortunately that's a function of nobody stepping up to seize a role. The best of the lot has been Cassius Vaughn, a guy who played his way out of a starting role with the Colts.
Struggles with the stringent enforcement on illegal contact are a real problem. Bill Bentley, the projected slot man, has unsuccessfully battled this issue all summer.
Chris Greenwood has had some positive moments, but he was worse against Jacksonville than his minus-1.6 PFF grade would indicate. That's him in the background of the picture, beaten like Keith Olbermann's proverbial rented goalie.
The safeties have not provided much comfort either. Glover Quin has looked fantastic in practice, but he's struggled in the games. James Ihedigbo plays the run impressively, but he's a liability playing more than about 12 yards from the line of scrimmage in coverage.
At least the depth at safety has shown some potential. Isa Abdul Quddus and Jerome Couplin are both very active and rangy, proving they can be a solid second unit. However, they both showed why they're not starters against Jacksonville:
Isa Abdul-Quddus is starting because of James Ihedigbo's rest. Shoulda picked that one off. No excuses for dropping that one.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) August 23, 2014
It would be a stretch for the Lions to rely upon them in extended regular-season action.
Still Tough to Trust Matthew Stafford
It has been an exercise in futility to try to convince Lions fans, let alone the national media, to truly trust in quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Every time he comes close to earning the faith, like his brilliant game-winning touchdown plunge against Dallas last year, he throws all the good faith away with a middling game pockmarked with poor mechanics and more bad decisions than Justin Beiber.
Stafford appeared to finally turn the corner and make believers out of skeptics with a brilliant performance in Oakland. Just when fans thought it was safe to buy that No. 9 jersey and don a backwards cap in his honor, Stafford goes out with a clunker against Jacksonville.
His final numbers weren't as terrible as it seemed watching the game in person: 10-for-16, 98 yards, with one interception and no touchdowns.
He's fortunate it was just one interception, as the Jaguars dropped two others in the first quarter. Stafford's first attempt of the night went into triple coverage over the middle, a blatant force to Brandon Pettigrew with better options open.
#Jaguars finally caught one of Matthew Stafford's misfires. Not sure what happened there.— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) August 23, 2014
His final two plays were a wild underthrow of an open Corey Fuller on a deep seam route and an intentional grounding penalty where the quarterback rolled into the pressure instead of stepping up and away from it.
Stafford's performance called to mind the scene in Bull Durham where the skipper asks Robert Wuhl's character what the teams' record is. Wuhl's Larry responds "eight and 16". "Eight and 16. How'd we ever win eight?" retorts manager Joe Riggins. Larry shakes his head and declares "it's a miracle".
Such is life with the enigmatic Stafford as the Lions quarterback. While it could be a lot worse (hello Cleveland!) it's painful that the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft could be so much better, too.
Nick Fairley's Bar Has Been Lowered
It's been a mighty fall for defensive tackle Nick Fairley. The 2011 first-round pick has sunk from glory as if he's wearing a lead belt around his waist.
It might not be lead, but that waist has expanded considerably since the beginning of OTAs. After reporting for duty with the new coaching staff at a svelte (for him) 295 pounds, Fairley quickly ballooned back well north of a healthy playing weight.
He admits to weighing 315 pounds, but that sure seems like it comes after a few days of fasting and wearing sweat suits in a sauna. Coach Caldwell noticed and demoted the former Auburn star to the second unit, finally holding the immature Fairley responsible for his own problems.
This is just the latest in a series of disappointments that have epitomized the defensive tackles tenure in Detroit. From arrests to undisciplined play and lackadaisical effort, the bad has outweighed the sporadic bursts of brilliance.
Gone are the All-Pro projections, the double-digit sack expectations and the chance at a lucrative new contract. Those are replaced with Fairley earning praise for doing next to nothing, as described by Terry Foster of The Detroit News:
He recorded just one tackle but Fairley appeared more athletic and he even had his shopping cart moment when he pushed Jags backup center Luke Bowanko into quarterback Chad Henne in the first quarter. He was in on plays even though he did not make any. Baby steps for our version of Big Baby.
Yes, it's come to the point where the chronic underachiever wins points for simply not being a detriment on the field against an late-round rookie backup center.
Two Pleasant Surprises Should Make the Team
When training camp began in late July, almost no one gave defensive end George Johnson or safety Jerome Couplin an opportunity to make the final 53-man Lions roster.
Looking back at predictions from that time, nobody had either player making it. From Michael Rothstein at ESPN to Sean Yuille at Pride of Detroit and even my own forecast at Detroit Lions Draft, Johnson and Couplin were estimated to be practice squad candidates...at best.
A funny thing happened on the way to the chopping block: Both players have proven they belong on the final roster.
Johnson has been nothing short of revelatory during the preseason. The journeyman from Rutgers lost weight and found a home in Detroit, taking full advantage of starter Ezekiel Ansah missing almost all of the summer so far with a shoulder injury.
He carried over his strong performance against Jacksonville:
George Johnson had another great night: "I want to make it hard for them to cut me." He's doing just that with a week to go. #Lions— Denny Kapp (@DennyKapp) August 23, 2014
Per PFF, Johnson has at least one quarterback hurry in each preseason game. Moreover, his blazing first step and relentless motor have made him a major thorn in blockers' paws all summer long, both in practices and games.
Couplin, an undrafted rookie from William & Mary, has made his mark with bone-rattling hits and a rapidly progressing feel for the coverage scheme and responsibilities. It's been a treat watching him improve from the first day of training camp to playing well with second-team reps in the Jaguars game.
He hasn't been perfect, but "The Osprey" has proven he deserves a roster spot over more proven but less dynamic and more physically limited veterans DeJon Gomes and Don Carey.
Don't Expect Much from the Draft Class
The buzz surrounding May's draft class is fading as the regular season approaches.
First-round pick Eric Ebron will indeed be an integral part of the offense. His ability to line up all over the formation is a critical component of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's diverse attack. Alas, he's the only rookie likely to make an impact right away.
Kyle Van Noy, the second-round linebacker, is set to miss some time with an abdominal injury. As reported by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, it sounds suspiciously like a sports hernia. That could mean an extensive amount of time on the sidelines for a player widely projected to thrive as a sorely needed playmaker.
Third-round offensive lineman Travis Swanson and fourth-round cornerback Nevin Lawson are both nowhere near ready to contribute on offense and defensive, respectively. Strong special teams play gives Lawson some value, but Swanson has struggled mightily all summer. His lofty draft status is the only reason he will make the team.
The next two picks, defensive end Larry Webster and defensive tackle Caraun Reid, project as little-used rotation players as rookies. Both have flashed talent at times but look raw and unready for the NFL at others. Their arrows are pointing up, but their first-year contributions figure to be meager beyond special teams.
As mentioned in a previous slide, sixth-round pick T.J. Jones is now on PUP and could very well miss his entire rookie campaign.
Seventh-round pick Nate Freese has yet to win the kicking competition with Giorgio Tavecchio, though the Italian challenger blew a great chance to get a leg up by badly missing a 52-yard attempt against Jacksonville.
It's Still Impossible to Predict This Team's Fate
This is the time of year where folks come out with NFL season predictions. Yet it's a struggle to find anyone with a definitive clue about how many games these Lions will win in 2014.
Most sports books have Detroit's over/under win total at 8.5 games, and good luck investing any money on either side of the line. Peter King of MMQB said as much in his Lions preview.
This Detroit team has the potential to win 11 or 12 games behind a highly skilled offense and a talented, deep defensive front that can make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
The Lions also have the same chance to win just six or seven games, thanks to Stafford's inconsistency and a defense that appears vulnerable to the big play.
Nothing we've seen in preseason engenders any conviction to predict one way or the other.
All advanced statistics are from Pro Football Focus, which requires a subscription for premium content. All practice and game observations were obtained firsthand by the author unless otherwise indicated.