The wait is over and we are a short time from watching an actual group of people playing an actual football game in actual Lions jerseys. The two squads doing battle for our enjoyment this week are the Lions vs. Steelers. The battle this Friday is not fought between the teams however. As nice as it is to watch the Lions win, we learned this lesson in 2008 when the 4-0 preseason championship belt winning Detroit Lions did not exactly transition that success in to the regular season. What? Who lost every game? The Lions were 4-16. The match ups that you need to watch in this game are the relative performances of the Lions’ players in the opportunities they are given. We are not going to learn anything about whether Tate or Jones is the number one receiver. We’re not likely to learn much of anything about any of the starters for the Lions in fact. The first preseason game is one where the starters come out, half ass a drive or two trying not to get hurt, and then turn it over to the guys that are actually trying to land jobs this week. The game doesn’t get interesting until Matthew Stafford, Ziggy Ansah, and Darius Slay have taken their pads off to watch their understudies take their shots. What we are going to learn is which players fighting for roles closer to the bottom of the roster are starting to separate themselves. During the season you’ll be getting these previews of match ups like Darius Slay vs. Antonio Brown, but they’re going to get ten or fewer plays each in the first preseason game. In the preseason you’ll be getting the top five battles among Lions players for jobs.
Stevan Ridley vs. Zach Zenner vs. Dwayne Washington
Ridley is 5’11” 220lbs and has a 1263 rushing yard season under his belt. Zenner is 5’11” 222lbs and has an incredible number of rushing yards in college. Washington is 6’2″ 226lbs, the new GM’s sixth round pick, and has the most impressive athleticism of the three having run a 4.44 40 yard dash at his pro day and broad jumped 10’7″. Zenner set Lions fans’ imaginations on fire last preseason, but was unable to recapture that success during the regular season. Ridley on the other hand, had an ACL injury in 2013 and rushed back to get some games in last season before he was fully healed. Washington is a complete unknown to Lions fans at this point unless they’ve spent a lot of time watching Washington Huskies games. Even then there are only 13 starts to watch. This is the week that we get to see what Ridley has left in the tank at 27, coming off two disappointing years. We also get to see if Zenner was last year’s George Winn, who had been the media darling fourth running back who went from undrafted to the 53 man roster through hard work and determination in 2014. What we get to see from Washington is something, this is his chance to make a first impression in this week’s Lions vs. Steelers game.
It seems likely that these three players are going to get some work this week in the short yardage back role. None of the three are bonafide starters, which means that this battle will likely endure the entire first half and bleed into the second half. While the short yardage role is up for grabs, something to watch for as well is the special teams contribution each man makes. Bob Quinn spent this entire off-season showing us that he values players with special teams ability through his free agent signings and you can bet that the running back position battle will largely fall down to that as well. None of these men are returners, so when the team is punting, don’t go grab a beer. First see if one of the three gets a special teams tackle, and then go grab a beer.
Jay Lee vs. Quinshad Davis
Jay Lee is 6’3″, 215 lbs, ran a 4.53 40 yard dash, jumped 33-1/2 inches and has 32-7/8 inch arms. Quinshad Davis is 6’3″ 218lbs, ran a 4.69s 40 yard dash, jumped 31-1/2 inches and has a set of long arms himself, though they were not measured at his pro day. This is the week we find out if Lee’s inexperience running a professional route tree and reading coverages has shown progress, and whether he can hold on to the ball when it comes to game time. We also find out whether or not Davis can use his body to keep defenders away from the ball, and whether his route running is good enough to get him momentary separation from defensive backs for the quarterback to take advantage of. These two should be fighting it out for the second half superstar sticker this week, but as with most camp battles it is going to be kickoffs and punts where you’ll be listening for their names. If one of these guys can turn themselves in to a tackling machine, that’s the guy that has a shot at beating out one of the veterans Bob Quinn put in their way, the Andres, Kerley, and Jones. There are two spots open and those are the six men fighting for them in this week’s Lions vs. Steelers game. We are going to find out where these two rookies fit into the hierarchy.
Johnson Bademosi vs. Don Carey
Bademosi is 25 years old, six feet tall, 200lbs, and experienced playing both corner and safety, though with poor results at both positions to this point. Don Carey is 29 years old, 5’11” 202lbs, and experienced playing both corner and safety, though with poor results at both positions to this point. Bademosi wracked up 17 special teams tackles and Carey 16 last season. In terms of special teams impact these two players are virtually identical, and excellent. This is one battle where I will be telling you to watch the players exclusively at their defensive spots in the Lions vs. Steelers match up. If one of these players can solidify himself as a legitimate corner or safety as well as being the special teams ace they are known to be, they will most assuredly solidify their roster space. A team can only afford to keep a certain number of specialists though, making it vital that one or both of these men find an additional role if both are to make the final roster. It is far more likely that Bob Quinn takes Bademosi if all things are equal, leaving Carey on the outside looking in.
Joe Dahl vs Geoff Schwartz
Dahl is 6’4″ 306lbs, and a fifth round pick of the new GM. Geoff Schwartz is 6’6″ 340lbs, and has six years of experience, having been rated among the top 25 guards in the NFL last season. Both of these men are going to back up three spots on the offensive line for most of their careers, both guard spots and right tackle, but Schwartz has already proven he can. With that said he is coming off two injury-shortened seasons, and is 30 years old. Linemen often play in to their mid and even late thirties without a massive drop off, but when a player starts sustaining injuries in their late twenties, their chances of being those iron men diminish. Schwartz comes in to the preseason as the hands down favorite to be the primary back up at the guard spot, perhaps even challenge for a starting role if Laken Tomlinson or Larry Warford come fully off the rails in the new offense. But Dahl is a well regarded player, whose gimmicky college system left him a question mark to scouts. We will see how far he has come with a few months of pro coaching on Saturday. These two likely both make the 53 man roster, but it will be interesting to see where they fall on the depth chart. Saturday’s Lions vs. Steelers game should start to establish the pecking order for certain.
Nevin Lawson vs. Alex Carter
Lawson is 5’9″, 191lbs, filled in well last season after injuries decimated the Lions secondary and seemed to have the confidence of the coaching staff as the season came to a close. Carter is 6′, 196lbs, and was put on IR after an ankle injury cost him so much of his rookie season that the coaching staff thought it impossible to get him up to speed without sacrificing the preparation of the rest of the roster. Looking at measurables, Carter looks like he should fit what the Lions do defensively better, but Lawson has put it on the field. Lawson is the incumbent starter, with very few challengers on the roster. If Carter can take the job, or at least show the ability that made him a third round pick in 2015, things will be looking up for the Lions secondary. Against the depleted wide receiver group they will be facing, a bad week in the Lions vs. Steelers preseason match up would be disastrous for either player. Jim Caldwell has said of Carter that he is “not expecting miracles”, recognizing that rookie outside corners tend to not do well if thrown to the wolves. This week we get our first true look at Carter and Lawson on the field with a similar level of preparation.
Lions vs. Steelers
So there you have the most interesting Lions position battles that may actually see some playing time in the first preseason game. The two teams have been practicing together as a lead up to the game this Friday, with heavily publicized battles between Darius Slay and Antonio Brown all week. Brown was said to have beaten Slay for a few deep balls on day one, but several reporters said that he was doing things that would be flagged in a game to do so. The fact that Brown was nearly thrown out of today’s joint practice for his conduct toward an official after being flagged might back up those accounts. In the early stages that is one of the match ups I will certainly be rewatching over the weekend as the Lions had Slay shadowing Brown in the joint practices this week and that’s not how they’ve been using Slay in the past. Later in the game Davis and Lee will be up against the Steelers’ first and second round draft picks at times – the Steelers drafted defensive backs Artie Burns and Sean Davis in rounds one and two and they’re likely to see some time later in the game. Enjoy the Lions vs. Steelers game this weekend. I know I am definitely ready for some football.