The most unbearable time of year for the American sports fan is rapidly coming to a close. The NFL preseason is upon us, and this means that we're but a month away from games that count.
To open the preseason, the hapless Lions have taken the initiative and scheduled an opponent they feel will allow them to ease their new players and coaches into a cohesive unit, the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.
Jon Kitna, Roy Williams, and Calvin Johnson, oh my! Parts of two series saw the main cogs of the first-team offense on the field, and they were finely tuned. For a team that vowed to focus on the run, the passing game sure got off to an explosive start.
Even with the pocket collapsing around him, Kitna was able to toss the pill for 106 yards and a score, completing six of seven. He hit Calvin Johnson four times for 78 yards, including once on a 38-yard strike as he rolled out to escape heavy pressure, and again on a well-covered streak route down the left sideline for 25.
Then, on a short-drop timing route, he hit Roy Williams across the middle and he took it 20 yards down the sideline for the Lions' only touchdown of the game.
While the Lions have no idea who will be returning kicks and punts for the team this season, there are bigger fish to fry on special teams. Kick coverage was terribly spotty, and would have ended up even worse had the Giants not committed as many penalties.
The Giants employed a basic wedge return, but the Lions apparently could not handle their strength and looked like boys playing against men, for the most part.
Also of concern on the special teams front, veteran kicker Jason Hanson strained his left thigh kicking a 50-yard field goal near the end of the first half. He will have additional tests done on Friday, as will cornerback Stanley Wilson (Achilles tendon) and linebacker Gilbert Gardner (concussion).
Perhaps the specter of Mike Martz still hangs over this club, because the ground game was a complete and total non-starter. The offensive line, purported by the team to be much improved, was manhandled by the Giants' talented front seven, giving Tatum Bell no room to run and forcing Jon Kitna to escape pressure situations as his pocket collapsed, if it was even created in the first place.
The Lions also had trouble with the Giants' ground game. Though he gained all of his 27 yards on one run, Brandon Jacobs showed just how soft the Lions' defense can be.
On running plays, the Giants' offensive line moved the line of scrimmage toward the Lions' linebackers. The linebackers did an adequate job of stepping up and filling holes, attacking the point of attack and keeping the final numbers very respectable.
While the speedy, athletic front seven of the Lions did a formidable job of harassing Eli Manning when his line dropped back into pass protection, they didn't show the physicality this team is supposed to be about.
That has been the trend for the Lions recently, and it's one they desperately need to stymie. Good teams build through the draft, desperate teams through free agency.
The rookies saw the field on Thursday, with a few different results. First-round pick Gosder Cherilus saw a lot of snaps, and had stretches of solid play. However, most likely to be remembered by fans and Coach Marinelli are the three penalties, two false starts, and a hold when he was badly beaten.
Last year's charity leader George Foster wasn't immune either, committing a false start on 2nd-and-11 on a drive resulting in a missed field goal.
No right tackle on this squad seems to be able to master the basics. There was no reason to believe Cherilus is the Lions' starter at right tackle, though no one else made a very strong case, either.
Middle linebacker Jordan Dizon did not unseat incumbent starter Paris Lennon in game one of the preseason, but he did get a lot of time, ending up around the ball more than a few times. He fits in with a lot of the other Lions defenders up front, athletic and quick, if somewhat undersized. He recorded three tackles, one solo, in his debut.
Perhaps the best debut for a 2008 draftee was Andre Fluellen, who was able to disrupt things behind the line of scrimmage a number of times, recording a pair of tackles and a sack. While comparisons to Broderick Bunkley may be premature, he fell to the Lions in the third round because his senior season at Florida State was derailed by injuries, and was rated at least as a "player to watch" prior.
In addition to his physical attributes, in 2006 he received the Bill McGrotha/Spirit Humanitarian Award. While I am not familiar with the award, it presumably speaks to his character, a trait increasingly difficult to come by in Seminoles.
Finally, running back Kevin Smith's debut was, at best, inauspicious. Granted, he only received the ball eight times, but 22 yards doesn't work out to a good average yards per carry (though two and a half times Tatum Bell's). There was little running room for Smith, and it was apparent that he can be a powerful runner, but his upright style didn't serve him well in the tight space he had to work in.
Less encouraging than the job the starters did on Manning was the Tampa 2 scheme's failure to slow down Anthony Wright or David Carr, who for the most part moved their offense down the field with relative ease.
The silver lining here is that it certainly qualified as a "bend but don't break" performance, and they were able to shut down Carr's attempt to run the two-minute offense as the game wound down.
Also on the negative side was some questionable play-calling on offense. In a preseason game, faced with a 3rd-and-22 situation, there doesn't seem to be much reason to run a draw play. Sure, the team wants to get a look at rookie Smith, but honestly, how much are you learning about a back with that kind of run?
When the battle for backup quarterback is one of the more competitive in camp, why not let Dan Orlovsky show his stuff? There's a lot more to glean from letting loose a throw than there is by handing the ball off. Draw plays on 3rd-and-long are, in most situations, considered giving up, and this call reeked of it. Then, they made the same call later in the game.
Speaking of Orlovsky, he looked as comfortable under center as he has at any point in his NFL career, taking control of the offense and proving very efficient.
While putting up similar numbers, Drew Stanton seemed to lack confidence early in his appearance. However, everyone around him did a nice job of calling plays and running routes that offered him check downs that he successfully utilized.
His confidence in managing the game and displaying his skill set visibly grew as the game wore on, and he ended up showing exactly the gamer he was at Michigan State, actually leading the team in rushing.
Two other guys that showed that they, too, are gamers were former Lion Artose Pinner and linebacker Leon Joe. Joe led the team with seven tackles, all solo, and proved just what kind of hitter he is.
Meanwhile, Pinner, returning to Detroit after spending a year each with Minnesota and Atlanta, hopes to crack the running back lineup at Ford Field once again. While his stat line is beyond underwhelming (he never went for more than four yards and only totaled 14), he proved to be the only back that could push a pile or fall forward.
Not much can be told about the secondary. The starters didn't play much, Eli Manning didn't have enough time to test them, and the Giants didn't dress four wideouts, including Plaxico Burress and Mario Manningham.
Given the extremely small sample size, extrapolating any observations from this game that might have relevance on the regular season may be folly. Still, if this game turns out to be a microcosm of what the Lions end up being about, then the key is going to be second down.
The Lions' offensive line failed to create any real push to support first-down runs, and the results on second down determined the fate of the drive. The Lions' first team was three-for-four in third-down conversions, but the results seemed to have more to do with second down than anything.
On the three successful conversions, the yardage to go was three, one, and two. On the failed attempt, they had seven yards to go. In all four situations, the best situation the Lions put themselves in after first down was 2nd-and-9. All four first downs were Tatum Bell carries.
While this is, of course, nothing groundbreaking, the Lions need to face 3rd-and-shorts to be successful. Short-yardage situations open up the entire playbook and can allow offensive coordinator Jim Colletto to be creative with his athletic personnel. Thus far, we have no reason to believe the Lions can run on first down, and just as little to make us think they'll stop trying. Second down becomes crucial.
While the trend became less pronounced as the backups entered the game (and as Detroit insisted on rushing on 3rd-and-short), the numbers speak for themselves. In the five successful third-down conversions, the Lions gained an average of 5.6 yards (7.7 yards for the starters) on second down. In the eight failed conversions that number dropped to 2.9 yards.
The other obvious, yet still relevant, thing the Lions must accomplish to taste any measure of success in 2008 is limiting penalties. All Lions fans are aware of Detroit's penchant for drive-killing infractions, and a potential starter was yet again guilty of this. The aforementioned false start of George Foster took an already-difficult 2nd-and-11 at the Giants' 18 yard line and sent the drive to a missed 37-yard field goal attempt by Eddie Johnson.
Many will point out that Jason Hanson simply doesn't miss from there, he is 38 years old now, and as evidenced by the discomfort he felt in his off leg during Thursday's game, his body could betray him. There is no guarantee that he'll be there week in and week out to rescue the Detroit offense.
There's plenty of tape to watch and things to fix, so we'll see how the Lions come out next Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
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