The Detroit Lions showed their teeth during the first preseason game of the year, against the Cincinnati Bengals. They also showed that they have addressed many of the holes they had last season. The depth was evident on both sides of the ball and, notably, no one touched QB Matthew Stafford.
There were several players who came out and showed that, even though it was a preseason game, they were going to leave it all out on the field. Head coach Jim Schwartz has turned this team's culture around. They now play every down like it is the most important one of the game.
What Schwartz and company have done is impressive in and of itself, but there are several players who deserve extra props for their efforts against the Bengals.
Who impressed the most?
Cornerback Chris Houston
Fans and the Lions' coaching staff expressed concern about Detroit's secondary last season. So to partially address this concern, the Lions brought in CBs Eric Wright, Maurice Leggett and Brandon McDonald.
They also re-signed CB Chris Houston.
Even though Wright was on the field opposite Houston, no one threw his way. They did throw toward Houston, however, and quickly learned that in his second season with the Lions, he has the system down.
Houston intercepted the very first pass of the game. He also knocked down a pass in the end zone while pushing the receiver out of bounds. His defended pass caused the Bengals to kick a field goal, which resulted in the only three points they would score.
Leggett and Aaron Berry didn't play due to an injuries, but McDonald, Nathan Vasher, Paul Pratt and Prince Miller all saw action. McDonald proved to be the most impressive of the four, but the other three had at least one tackle.
As great as Houston was in making big plays at corner, McDonald showed great tackling ability and came away with six tackles—the most for all corners and tied with LB Bobby Carpenter for top number of tackles on the team.
Safety Amari Spievey also showed that he studied the playbook this offseason and got in better shape. He was much quicker and athletic on the field. His tackles were solid and he looked much more confident. Another safety who looked really good during this preseason game was the undrafted rookie Ricardo Silva. Silva had five tackles and one interception.
The Detroit Lions special teams unit was third best in the league last year and did not disappoint during their first preseason game. There were new players being tested, however, who knew they needed to show up with a big game if they wanted to make the roster.
With all of the concern about how the new kickoff return rules would effect the game, Stefan Logan, the 5'6" WR and kickoff return specialist, made a strong statement that the return game is still alive and well. On the first play of the night, Logan returned the ball to the 33 yard line and set the offense up for a well executed scoring drive.
Nate Hughes (wearing jersey No. 86) replaced Logan as the back up kickoff returner and showed that he, too, could bring the ball out. On his first attempt he caught the ball in the end zone and ran it 24 yards.
On defense, Detroit's special teams players caused a fumble on Cincinnati's first kickoff return. Ashlee Palmer, Isaiah Ekejiuba and Bobby Carpenter (all linebackers returning from last year) got in on the hit, but it was WR Rashied Davis (acquired this offseason) who noticed that the ball had come loose and recovered the fumble.
Detroit's Defensive Line
There was great anticipation about the Detroit Lions front four on defense this year. Even with rookie DT, Nick Fairley, out with a broken foot, the starters were already considered formidable. Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Corey Williams all returned from last year.
Though Suh gets most of the attention as the powerful DT who won Defensive Rookie of the Year for 2010, Williams deserves his own due. He is the only one who recorded a sack during the game on a defensive line known for their ability to get to the QB.
Suh's presence was felt too, of course, and though he wasn't out on the field for very long, he put so much pressure on QB Andy Dalton it caused him to throw a bad pass to WR A.J. Green—and it fell right into the hands of Chris Houston.
Here's how writer Josh Kirkendall (Cincy Jungle on SB Nation) summed it up:
"Pressure on Dalton came from Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who took a false step outside, turning inside once Williams committed. Now with the team's right guard stationary, unable to match Suh's inside move, the defensive tackle had a free shot on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
With that pass rush baring down on Dalton, his progressions were interrupted that forced him to either take a sack or throw a prayer to his favorite receiver A.J. Green down the right sidelines. By the time he choose, it was too late. Suh was close enough, preventing Dalton from stepping into the throw which generated virtually no strength behind it. Cornerback Chris Houston, covering Green, easily picked off the pass with no resistant from the wide receiver."
Later, Suh put a hit on Dalton that earned him a hefty penalty for roughing the passer. This is an area that he needs to be careful of not duplicating this year. It did showcase the intensity that he is known for and made the point about what he is capable of. But this kind of "rip the head off the QB" is a habit that Suh needs to curb in order to reduce the amount of penalties the defense gets this season.
As Rob Rubick (former Lions TE turned Channel Seven game announcer) stated right after the play, "Ndamukong's got to watch it...it's not the 15 yard penalty he's going to get in this preseason game, it's the reputation that'll go with him the rest of the season. Officials will be looking for that and all of a sudden he won't even be doing anything that's very bad and the officials will flag him."
Suh earned the respect of Lions newly acquired LB, Justin Durant, however. “It’s unbelievable the ability and the power that he has,” Durant said. “To overpower grown men like that—I can’t even describe it. It’s crazy.”
The rest of the defensive line also did a great job of keeping the Bengals from scoring. They held them to only three points, with 70 yards rushing and 135 yards passing.
Schwartz wants to see more discipline from his defensive line after they piled on three personal fouls in the first half and MLB Stephen Tulloch (also acquired this off season) agrees. He also believes that the fouls can be chalked up to pent-up energy.
According to Yardbarker.com, Tulloch stated:
"Obviously you don’t want personal fouls. But when you play the game of football, it’s all emotion. You’ve got to try to control your emotion, but sometimes it gets the best of you. But all in all, I think that’s just what this young defense is about: just getting after players.”
There is no doubt about the Lions defensive line playing with passion in what many might suggest is an irrelevant game, but nothing is irrelevant about the Lions starting where they left off last season.
Yes, believe it or not, the Lions offensive line gets props for their performance against Cincinnati. The first stringers, albeit somewhat pieced together, did not allow anyone to get to QB Stafford.
The starting line, averaging 6'4" 311lbs, consisted of LT Corey Hilliard, LG Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman and RT Gosder Cherilus. The left tackle position was concerning coming into the game as Jeff Backus was out with a pectoral injury and then back up tackle, Jason Fox injured his foot in training camp. Hilliard proved to be very effective and HC Jim Schwartz has taken note of this.
“Corey’s stepped in and played a lot of positions for us,” Schwartz said. “ He looks a little more physical...I said last year was probably his best...it looks like he’s even (improved) this year.”
Want impressive? Not one of the Lions four QBs were sacked.
While the running game needs tweaking, the Detroit Lions showed their ability to pass the ball very well. Last year the Lions had to use three different quarterbacks throughout the regular season because of injuries. All three of these QBs return this year, which helps with continuity and makes the passing game even more effective.
Matthew Stafford, who looks much stronger this year, completed six out of seven passes for a total of 71 yards and two touch downs. The first string receivers, Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson, also looked very sharp on the field. Johnson caught two for 37 yards and a touchdown and Burleson caught two for 17 and a touchdown. Jahvid Best even caught two passes for 17 yards.
The chemistry between Stafford and his receivers is evident. They trust him to put the ball where it needs to be and he puts it there. These match ups are exciting to watch and should not disappoint this year, as long as everyone stays healthy.
Shaun Hill came in with 9:44 left in the first quarter and connected on eight out of nine throws for 63 yards. If you watched the game, you already know that the most impressive part of his time on the field was his somersault into the end zone for a touchdown.
Drew Stanton had the task of throwing to the third string wideouts and players trying to make an impression to stay on the team. Stanton went seven for 15 and 110 yards. His numbers reflect a lot of dropped passes and one that was over the head of WR Maurice Stovall. He gave WR Derrick Williams plenty of opportunities to make important catches as Williams is one of those players fighting for a roster spot. After his first two drops of the game, he caught one for 32 yards.
Zac Robinson, the fourth QB to take the field for Detroit, went two for two for 36 yards, which included a very nicely thrown touchdown pass to WR Nate Hughes.
Most impressive of all is that each of the four QB's Detroit put on the field looked very comfortable and capable of running the offense.
The bottom line is that the Lions looked very good overall in their first preseason game of the year. The only exceptions were the all but absent running game on offense, the gashes taken on defense by their limited ability to stop Cincinnati's run game (especially on the right side), players dropping catchable passes and the sometimes dangerously high snaps by Raiola. All of these areas will be evaluated in the preseason and no doubt will be addressed.
The Lions played one of their best preseason games last Friday. Not just because they held the Bengals to three points, but because they looked like a team who had depth, passion and swagger.
If the Lions can stay healthy this year, it should come as no surprise that they end up playing in the post-season. This team is underrated and full of talent, which makes them very dangerous opponents.