We’ve seen what the Detroit Lions can do in the preseason. Three games, the final two played almost exclusively by backups, showed us a few things about the first edition of the Dan Campbell Lions.
Here are a few lessons from the preseason games that can be applied to the regular season in Detroit.
The defensive front is the unquestioned strength of the team
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GM Brad Holmes prioritized building up the trenches in his first offseason at the helm in Detroit. The plan looks off to a good start based on the preseason play. The Lions barely played starters Michael Brockers, Nick Williams, Romeo Okwara or Trey Flowers in the exhibition season. They didn't need to play. As they've done throughout training camp, the Detroit defensive front (the line and the outside LBs) dominated the competition. Rookies Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike both looked legit when facing other foes. The depth is where the Lions strength on the defensive front really shows. Bruce Hector, Kevin Strong, Julian Okwara — they all look like viable contributors on good NFL defenses, yet they might never see the field in Detroit because they're behind considerable talent. It's been that way all summer in Allen Park.
Lower the expectations for Penei Sewell as a rookie
When the Lions selected Oregon OT Penei Sewell with the No. 7 overall pick, fans were largely ecstatic. And rightly so; Sewell is one of the most impressive tackle prospects in years with a talent ceiling as a perennial All-Pro. It wasn't uncommon to get "Hall of Fame" talk attached to Sewell from many social media mentions. Recent history says switching Penei Sewell to RT is the right move for the Lions The preseason dampened the immediate buzz for Sewell. He looked very much like a 20-year-old who has played just four football games since 2018, and none against anything close to NFL competition. Remember, Sewell hadn't been through an actual football practice prior to Lions training camp in over 20 months. That's a tremendous amount of rust to shake off, and Sewell is doing it while playing a new position to boot. The All-Pro potential is still there. Just don't expect it to manifest right away.
The secondary still doesn't make enough plays
(AP Photo/Matt Durisko)
One of the areas where Holmes and the Lions just didn't have enough resources to fully address this offseason is the secondary. Four of the five starters will be the same as they were in 2020, when the Lions surrendered an aggregate QB Rating of 112.4, the worst in NFL history. The new addition is undrafted rookie A.J. Parker as the slot corner. A more coherent scheme and focus on player development from the coaching staff has already made the unit look better, but the Lions secondary still struggled to make plays on the ball in preseason. Detroit's defensive backs logged just 10 passes defended in the three games and didn't come up with an interception until Corn Elder — who might not make the team — caught a truly terrible decision from Colts fourth-string QB Brett Hundley in the second half of the preseason finale. It's not going to be as bad as the 2020 regular season, but that's an impossibly low bar to clear. The preseason showed toddler steps towards competence, but still not enough plays on the ball.
Special teams could be good
Punter Jack Fox is a weapon. We already knew that about the Lions' Pro Bowl punter. But there have been some serious flags raised about the rest of the Detroit special teams. If the preseason is any guide, those flags can probably be changed from red to yellow. Like the flag system at the beach warning of water danger, the Lions special teams in the preseason flew the yellow flag: waves could be choppy but also a lot of fun. Neither Randy Bullock nor Zane Gonzalez missed a single kick in games. Godwin Igwuebuike showed some burst as a return man. Scott Daly was quietly flawless as the new long snapper. The coverage units fared well above-average for the preseason, allowing just one mistake on a punt return in Pittsburgh. It might not carry over into the regular season. The placekicking throughout training camp has been a rocky shoreline. But the radical overhaul on special teams looked like it could acceptably work based on the preseason.
The offensive starters absolutely must stay healthy
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It's tough to draw any conclusions about the Lions starting offense from the preseason because we never saw it. Jared Goff played two series (one awful, one impressive) in the opener at quarterback. The top two outside wide receivers, Tyrell Williams and Kalif Raymond, barely played. The same is true of the team's best linemen, Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker. Pro Bowl TE T.J. Hockenson and starting RB D'Andre Swift never took the field once. What we did see in the preseason is that the reserves on offense are really going to struggle to make plays. They had trouble making big plays against second- and third-string defenses. Rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown was impressive, but six catches for 28 yards in three games isn't exactly blowing the lid off defenses. Bottom line: if the Lions offensive starters are out, the reserves aren't going to scare anyone in the regular season after doing next to nothing dynamic in the preseason, either.