Lions preseason: Who and what to watch for in the matchup with the Steelers

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When the Detroit Lions meet the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday, August 21st in Heinz Field, it will be the second preseason game for Dan Campbell’s team. The coach has already ruled out a few key players for the trip to Pittsburgh, but that only creates opportunities to watch other players and facets of the team.

Here are some of the things to focus on when the Lions play the Steelers in the only preseason road game for Detroit in 2021.

Penei Sewell's second impression

In his highly anticipated Lions debut, first-round pick Penei Sewell fared pretty well. The No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft out of Oregon got beaten for a sack by fellow rookie Greg Rousseau, but his run blocking was very sharp and he handled his pass protection capably outside of the bad rep, where he wasn't the only Lions lineman to lose his battle. Now Sewell faces the Steelers and their aggressive, attacking-from-all-angles pass rush. He's had some issues picking up loops and far outside rushers throughout training camp. Expect Pittsburgh to challenge Sewell with things he might not have seen before. If he offers up a clean slate at right tackle against the Steelers, the arrow is definitely pointing sky-high for Sewell.

Defensive backs in new positions

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last week's preseason opener presented one change in the Lions' secondary, one that was thrust upon everyone on the Bills' game-winning drive. Bobby Price was playing outside cornerback on that drive and go beaten for a big play. Coach Campbell confirmed after the game that Price is moving from safety to outside CB full-time. His position transition continues in Pittsburgh, which features one of the deepest receiving corps in the league. With Price moving from safety, it left an opening at that spot. Enter undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs. Jacobs confirmed to the Detroit Lions Podcast on Thursday night that he is changing positions from outside cornerback. He had played well early in camp but seemed to be losing momentum at CB, and his tackling skills and physicality make him a somewhat natural transition to playing safety. It's a new role for each, and there are likely to be some lumps with technique and reactions to the offense. What we want to see is both Price and Jacobs show that they're mentally game for the challenge and have some moments or reps that prove they can handle the changes.

Julian Okwara in the first half

Detroit Lions defensive end Julian Okwara (99) celebrates a play against the Buffalo Bills during the second half of the preseason game at Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.

Julian Okwara had a tale of two halves in the preseason opener. He finished the game with a ferocious flourish, dominating Bills tackle Bobby Hart for several QB pressures and a great sack in the fourth quarter. It was a tour de force performance for Okwara that nearly saved the game for the Lions. Before halftime, it was a different story. When the Bills had a better offensive line in the game, they dominated Okwara. He was bullied in the run game and managed just one pressure, one that was easily avoided by QB Davis Webb. Worse, Okwara lost his edge contain on a smartly designed QB run by the Bills, who ruthlessly exploited the second-year defensive end using the exact same pass rush move on every rep. The goal in Pittsburgh is for Okwara to look like he did in the second half against Buffalo for the entire game. The matchup is more favorable for him earlier, which leads to the next thing to watch...

Defensive line should dominate

Detroit's defensive line has been a very pleasant development all summer. It's clearly the best unit on the entire team, proving themselves daily in camp and also showing out well against the Bills. Against Pittsburgh, they should dominate. The Steelers offensive line appears (on paper anyway) to be the NFL's worst. They're replacing four starters from last year's line, which also wasn't good enough by Pittsburgh standards. Having said that, the Steelers line had a pretty solid game in their win last week over the Eagles. The Lions attack up front, keyed by impressive rookie nose tackle Alim McNeill and high-energy young DE's Jashon Cornell, Kevin Strong and Bruce Hector, should have a strong game. It's also a nice spot for the debut of second-round end Levi Onwuzurike, who has been sidelined most of training camp with a back injury.

Scott Daly

(AP Photo)

Scott Daly has the unenviable task of replacing legendary Lions long snapper Don Muhlbach. The Lions released the 17-year vet this week, a move that created an unusual amount of fan backlash and consternation for the most anonymous NFL position. All eyes will be on Daly, who didn't have a perfect Lions debut against the Bills. He's been very impressive in camp, as much as a backup long snapper can impress. But now that he is The Man, it's a step up for Daly. Even one slight wobble on a snap to punter Jack Fox, either punting or holding for a placekick, is going to send some Lions fans off an angry cliff. Keep a keen eye on those guys doing the placekicking, too. The battle between Randy Bullock, who bombed in Pittsburgh in a brief run with the Steelers, and Zane Gonzalez is the most up-in-the-air position competition on the entire Lions roster.

Running back roulette

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Bills, starting RB Jamaal Williams struggled. With D'Andre Swift out with his groin injury — Swift will also miss this game — Williams sputtered to just 15 yards on nine carries. But when the reserves came in, the ground game ran to a new level. Undrafted rookie Dedrick Mills (32 yards on five carries) and freshly signed Craig Reynolds (49 yards on six carries including a 24-yard touchdown) thrived, often creating yards on their own. It would be nice to see Williams show a little more in his second game. It would also be nice if offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn had more plays in the script that suit Williams' style better. But really focus on the depth here in Pittsburgh; Mills, Reynolds, seventh-round rookie Jermar Jefferson, speedy newcomer Javon Leake and converted safety Godwin Igwebuike are all fighting for the final 1-2 roster spots and it's a wide-open battle.

How many starters sit?

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback Jared Goff is among several Lions starters who are not expected to play in Pittsburgh. He's healthy, but coach Campbell doesn't want to risk injury in a game that doesn't count in the standings. Campbell hasn't stated exactly which starters will sit, other than Swift and TE T.J. Hockenson, who are each nursing injuries. The Lions have been extra cautious in dealing with minor injuries all summer, which means we likely won't see Da'Shawn Hand, Breshad Perriman or John Penisini in Pittsburgh. None of them are starters but all are competing for prominent roles. Keep an eye on how many healthy players sit out. Beyond veteran DE Michael Brockers, will Campbell play it safe with guys like WR Tyrell Williams, OLB Trey Flowers and CB Jeff Okudah--players with nothing to prove in the preseason?

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