Seven Lions to watch in their second preseason game vs. Steelers

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions hit the road for their second of three preseason games, traveling to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers on Saturday night.

The matchup carries slightly more intrigue than a standard preseason game because the Lions also play the Steelers in the regular season. Coach Dan Campbell has said his team will be doing slightly more game-planning compared to last week’s opener against the Bills, but also acknowledged several key veterans are unlikely to play, including quarterback Jared Goff, tight end T.J. Hockenson, running back D’Andre Swift and defensive tackle Michael Brockers.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to tune in, whether it’s to see the rookies getting acclimated ahead of their debut seasons, or to watch roster battles play out beyond the confines of the practice field.

Here are seven players we’ll have our eyes on Saturday:

Linebacker Derrick Barnes

Working his way back from a nagging hamstring injury, Barnes played just eight snaps in the preseason opener, but it was an impressively impactful first taste of NFL action for the rookie out of Purdue. He flew to the ball and made a quick stop on a swing pass, then followed that up with a quarterback pressure and hit that forced an incompletion on third down.

More: Lions camp observations: This wasn’t exactly Jared Goff’s finest hour

The Lions view Barnes as their future at inside linebacker, even through he might not play a ton this year (assuming Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone can stay healthy). But if the rookie continues to showcase his abilities like he did against Buffalo, he’s going to force the issue.

Offensive tackle Penei Sewell

Yeah, Sewell got beat for a sack on his third preseason snap, but other than that, it was a solid outing for the first-round pick still adjusting to life at right tackle.

Because of his size and football maturity, it’s easy to forget Sewell is still a few months shy of being able to legally purchase a beer. The team’s coaches have raved about his ability to quickly correct his mistakes, so it’ll be good to see where improvements are being made, while also gaining an understanding on what areas still require improvement ahead of the regular season.

Defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike

Another rookie who has been dealing with an injury, Onwuzurike looked locked in and ready to go while getting his most extensive practice workload this week.

Obviously, with any back injury, there’s concern about it developing into a long-term issue. It’s a safe bet the team will continue to exhibit caution with their second-round pick, but if the week’s practices are any indication, the explosive lineman is going to find his way into the backfield, whether he gets five snaps or 40.

Running back Craig Reynolds

Reynolds came out of nowhere to be the story of the first preseason contest. Signed the day before the game, he entered the action in the second half, introduced himself to some of his teammates in the huddle, then proceeded to rumble for 49 yards on six carries, including an impressive 24-yard touchdown.

Going beyond the novelty of that moment, Reynolds is an intriguing player. At 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, he has a good frame to handle running between the tackles, but clearly has some shiftiness as well. In college, at D-II Kutztown (Penn.), he was also a productive pass-catcher with some return duties on the resume.

With D’Andre Swift having some early-career durability concerns, you can make a case for the Lions carrying an extra running back into the season. So why not Reynolds?

Defensive end Julian Okwara

No Lions defensive player saw more snaps against Buffalo than Okwara. It makes sense given the team is counting on him to have a significant role in the outside linebacker rotation, but he needs extra experience having spent much of his rookie season sidelined by injury.

In the contest, Okwara certainly flashed some ability, particularly late, when he picked up a critical third-down sack that forced a punt. Obvious question marks linger about his ability to be similarly productive against better competition than third-string offense tackles, so it’s worth monitoring if the confidence he gained in those closing minutes against the Bills can carry over to the second and third preseason games.

Wide receiver Javon McKinley

There’s still plenty of uncertainty at the back end of Detroit’s receiver depth chart, leaving the door open for some of the roster’s younger players to snatch the brass ring.

McKinley didn’t get a ton of playing time against the Bills, just 17 snaps in the second half, but he hauled in both passes thrown his way. That included a 35-yard deep ball in the fourth quarter that kickstarted a go-ahead scoring drive.

We’ve seen that downfield playmaking ability from the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder on the practice field and it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep the momentum going and prove he deserve more than a spot on the practice squad.

Defensive tackle Bruce Hector

A young journeyman, Hector has had six stints with five teams since going undrafted out of South Florida in 2018. He landed in Detroit as a waiver claim as training camp started and has been nothing short of impressive during his brief time here.

During practices, the 6-foot-2, 296-pounder finds his way into the backfield far more than you might anticipate, and that production carried into the preseason game when he recorded a sack and two additional quarterback pressures, to go with three tackles.

The Lions are unquestionably deep at defensive tackle, but with Michael Brockers, Da’Shawn Hand, John Penisini and Onwuzurikie all dealing with injuries during camp, Hector has taken advantage of the extra opportunities, dismissing any idea he was a camp body.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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