There are a few more interesting match-ups this week in the Lions vs. Bengals game than in any of last week’s short showcases of the starting teams. These games are scheme light, meaning that teams are trying to get their plays implemented against live opponents rather than tailoring their play calling to defeating an opponent. Because of that it’s fairly easy to forgive and forget the horrendous pass and run blocking by the starting offensive line last week, as it was their first “real game” against a 3-4 defense in the new offensive blocking scheme. Sure they had a couple practices against these players in the days leading up to the game; however, 11 on 11 that was pretty much the first time they faced a team that really cared; and the Steelers have a pretty good group up front in a scheme the line hasn’t seen much of. This week we’ll get to see what they look like against a very similar front to the one that they have been practicing against every day, and hopefully fewer missed assignments in the running game. We are going to see the first team a lot more this week with one possible exception. If the Lions can not figure out a way to keep Matthew Stafford from getting shelled like the western front in World War One prior to an attack, then he’s going to have another early night.
The Bengals are perennial playoff participants, and boast one off the better groups of offensive and defensive linemen, making this an interesting test for the Lions. Here are what I consider to be the two most interesting one on one battles between starting players for Lions vs. Bengals, and the three position match ups that I think we are going to learn a lot more about during week two of the preseason.
Darius Slay vs. A.J. Green
The Lions have hinted that they are planning on having Darius Slay shadow a team’s best receiver in games where there is a large gap between number one and number two and this is the first chance we are going to have to potentially see that in action. Green: a 6’4″ 207 lb Pro Bowl wide receiver is among the best in the league, and the rest of the Bengals receiver corps is less than stellar on paper. Green has 3″ and 17 lbs on Slay, making this an excellent test for Slay who has at times had issues with bigger receivers. After last week’s all hype, and then no snaps match up between Slay and Antonio Brown, Lions fans should be chomping at the bit to see their recently extended top seven corner against the sort of player that he is being paid to deal with. This should be one of the highlights of Lions vs. Bengals week two of the preseason.
Geno Atkins vs. Warford/Tomlinson/Swanson
The Lions’ interior offensive line has not been great in the very limited sample size that we’ve seen, but they are the group most affected by a scheme change from 4-3 to 3-4 in their opponents. This week they are seeing a very similar scheme to the one they practice against day in and day out, with a giant and terrifying monster in it’s vanguard. Geno Atkins is one of the best 4-3 defensive tackles in the game of football today, and these three are the ones who will be tasked at various points with stopping him. Well, not so much stopping him, as delaying his inevitable arrival at a ball carrier or quarterback long enough for the play to be successful. Success in this case will likely not be achieved by one man, and may at times not even look like a success to the untrained eye. One of the things that some prognosticators don’t really seem to understand about offensive line play is that hitting a guy in the mouth and pushing him back five yards isn’t always the job. With a player like Geno Atkins, if the running backs are getting to their hole without his hands on them, and the quarterback does not end plays with this 300 pound man on top of him, that is a win.
Jace Billingsley vs. Andre Roberts vs. Jeremy Kerley
Make no mistake, Jace Billingsley is not competing with Jay Lee and Quinshad Davis for a roster spot (Round one to Davis in that match up from Week one’s game preview) this week. Billingsley is competing with Andre Roberts and Jeremy Kerley. Billingsley started camp well behind both of them; but an excellent performance against lesser competition has shown that this year’s preseason superstar (see Greg Salas or Zach Zenner last year) may very well be worth look higher up the depth chart. Combine Billingsley’s performance with Kerley’s almost unforgivable drop early against the Steelers, and you have the recipe for Billingsley to catch the eye of the offensive coordinator for possible use against the second team rather than the third and fourth team defense of their opponent. Billingsley also definitely earned a look in punt return role against the other team’s top group. Between the three I would put Roberts in the lead, with Kerley second and Billingsley in a still-distant third. All three players are of a similar skill set, and could find themselves in the role of the shifty fourth receiving option who returns punts. Roberts and Billingsley both also posess 4.4s speed, making them more dangerous deep threats in the passing game despite their lack of ideal height, which could cause the team to value their offensive potential. Making things more complex yet, this is the same role T.J. Jones has been anointed to by the fans and media but has put almost nothing on an NFL field to claim. Get your popcorn ready for the Lions vs. Bengals game, there are a lot of hungry Lions looking to hunt.
Taylor Decker vs. Riley Rieff
Here is the thing: Taylor Decker is the left tackle, right up until he’s not. He is the left tackle in this week’s Lions vs. Bengals match up but whether he makes it to week one depends entirely on him. Last week he faced a guy that has made a lot of left tackles look bad, and Decker looked really bad. On the other hand there is the guy who did OK at the job last year, for a few years in fact, and played alright last week in Rieff. This is not over by any means folks. If Rieff is the better left tackle, he should be the left tackle, with Decker moving over to the right side before the season rolls around. The bottom line here is that Decker needs to step up and have a good game if he wants to shut the door on Riley Rieff taking that spot from him, and it would be much better for the Lions if he did.
Alex Carter vs. Darrin Walls
Alex Carter has the shine of the unknown. He is that brand new toy that hasn’t been taken out of the package yet. Darrin Walls is the toy that your friend left at your house before he moved last summer. Both toys do the same job, and right now we know exactly what Walls can do. He can provide reasonable back up cornerback play with veteran savvy to help out the young bucks ahead of him on the depth chart. We have no idea what Alex Carter can do because one preseason game in Carter still hasn’t shown us anything. Darius Slay came out this week and called Walls the best route reader on the team, and I’ll take a guy with 4.4s speed and route reading ability over a guy with 4.5s speed who lacks it all day. The corner spot has four locks in Slay, Nevin Lawson, and Quandre Diggs handling the defensive duties, with Johnson Bademosi playing well on defense, and a Pro Bowler on special teams. That likely leaves only one more spot on the roster for a cornerback. Right now the choice looks very slanted in Walls’ favor. Remember that while Carter is a third round pick from only one year ago, he was not Bob Quinn‘s pick. If Quinn thinks Walls will help the team more right now, Carter could find himself on the practice squad looking for another team only one year in to his NFL journey. Right now I give the lead to Carter, it seems unlikely that the team would move on from him this early unless he actually played poorly, but we will see over the course of the next few weeks.
Zach Zenner vs. Dwayne Washington vs. Stevan Ridley
Zenner looked like the Lions’ best running back last week, but that wasn’t exactly like wining a gold medal at the Olympics, more like being at the top of the ladder at the local gym’s squash league. None of the Lions running backs got much in the way of blocking. making their assessment somewhat difficult. Zenner showed greater vision than his compatriots, and definitely did a better job of getting as much yardage as he could with every carry. Ridley showed very little, a thunderous chip block, and a nifty nine yard run that was called back because of a penalty, which can’t continue if he is going to fend off the rookie Washington for a roster spot. What makes that understandable is that every carry he received was blocked badly enough for him to have a defender on him before the line of scrimmage, and if that run had not been called back, Ridley would have been second among the backs in yards per carry. Washington definitely showed us what 4.4s speed looks like when it’s running away from kick coverage but not much else. I moved Washington ahead of Ridley because if the Lions can take the return duties off Ameer Abdullah‘s plate entirely and keep him fresh for the offense, they likely will. If the rest of the backs performance in week one was any indication, the Lions are going to need Abdullah on offense as much as possible. This is an interesting battle for two spots, between three men, and we will likely learn more about who fits where this week.
Dan Orlovsky vs. Jake Rudock
The thing with this battle is that Dan Orlovsky might be terrible, but he’s unlikely to be replaced by a sixth round rookie. This just is not the coaching staff likely to make that decision. If Matthew Stafford gets hurt, trusting the team to Rudock is almost like saying they they didn’t want to be here next year anyway. Rudock however played exceptionally well for a rookie sixth round pick, and has made this a conversation by progressing through his reads, and delivering the ball accurately to the right player. The mobility he showed doesn’t hurt either, having the opposing defense suddenly worried about a mobile quarterback can get an offense through the end of a game if the starter gets dinged up. The mobility Rudock showed can preserve a win by running out the clock. Blindly flinging a ball to nobody, and nowhere after evading pressure will never preserve a win. Sure Orlovsky settled in and had a decent game after that, but it’s quite likely that he is never going to get to settle in during a real game. His job is to come out of the bullpen in the event Stafford gets hurt, and with his veteran presence, not cost the team the game. That is why his boneheaded throw does matter, and cannot be simply written off. That is the exact situation that he needs to be prepared for, and what he did was give the game to the other team with a terrible play. I don’t expect Rudock to take the number two job, but if Orlovsky keeps throwing picks, and Rudock does not, there will be three quarterbacks on this team, and Orlovsky will have short leash if forced in to action. We will see who makes their case in this week’s Lions vs. Bengals match up.
Last Week’s Match Ups
There you have the matchups to watch this week. As for last weeks matchups, I have covered two of them but here is a run down of how they played out. Power backs: Zenner moved up, Washington moved up, Ridley moved down. Lee vs. Davis: Davis moved up and Lee moved down. Bademosi vs. Carey: both actually played well on defense, there is a possibility the Lions keep both, but I would say they both moved up the roster, but stayed the same in relation to each other. Schwartz vs. Dahl: Schwartz played well but is now missing time with an injury, Dahl had ups and downs in the game, making some very good plays for a rookie, and making some plays you’d expect in his first game. I expect them both to make the team. Nevin Lawson vs. Alex Carter: Lawson wins, Carter is not challenging for a starting position, and may not even make the team if he doesn’t contribute something.
Lions vs. Bengals
This should be a nice view of where the team is at, at least for the first half. After that it’s back to dueling backups for the last couple roster spots at each position. We’ll see players now and root for them, and then with any luck not hear their names again until next off-season when someone from their college posts in /r/detroitlions asking how they did as a rookie, and that they were a really nice guy in college. But I love the preseason games. Even if it’s a blowout everyone on the field is giving their best effort for every play.