Dan Campbell: Some would-be locks ‘not going to make it’ on Detroit Lions roster

Detroit Free Press

PITTSBURGH — The first half was ugly, and, in a lot of ways, it was understandable.

The Detroit Lions rested 14 key players, including quarterback Jared Goff, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift, while the Pittsburgh Steelers played most of their starters.

But Lions coach Dan Campbell said the talent disparity on display in Saturday’s 26-20 preseason loss was no excuse for his team’s poor performance — and in some ways makes the Lions’ looming roster cuts easier.

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“Here is the positive of this whole thing was, man, you guys just asked and you brought up some names. There’s some guys who are growing and getting better, young guys,” Campbell said. “And there’s some guys that maybe were counted out that have a chance of now making this team. And then there’s some ones that maybe everybody thought was going to make it and they’re not going to make it. So there’s a lot of that, man. I think it showed itself very clear today in a lot of different positions and players. And that’s why you do all this.”

Ben Roethlisberger played three series and engineered two touchdown drives as the Steelers dominated the first half, building a 20-0 halftime lead while outgaining the Lions 285 yards to 65.

Tim Boyle started in place of Goff and was 7-for-15 passing for 44 yards while playing behind an offensive line without Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker, but Campbell seemed to direct his ire at other areas.

“It’s like I told them, no excuses,” Campbell said. “And I know it’s easy to say that from afar, it’s like, ‘Well, maybe that’s not a fair battle.’ But I don’t believe that, because at the end of the day, I know there was two or three different times where they’re blocked and we got to make a play in the pass game and we’re not doing it. But the opportunity is there, and so I don’t care if Decker and Ragnow are in there, that ball’s still getting off and we still got to make a play. And same thing on defense. Yeah, could it have been a little bit tighter, maybe it’s a little bit more of a fair fight? I guess you could say that, but at the same time, there again, the opportunities were there for our young guys. We got to make those plays.”

Campbell singled out several players who made a positive impression Saturday:

• Backup quarterback David Blough, who led a valiant Lions comeback attempt with three fourth quarter touchdown drives. Blough finished 12 -for-17 passing for 143 yards and one touchdown and added 26 yards rushing on two scrambles.

• Godwin Igwebuike, who converted from safety to running back this summer and had 21 yards on seven carries Saturday, scoring the Lions’ first touchdown on a 7-yard run.

• Tom Kennedy, the often-overlooked slot receiver who had four catches for 61 yards to lead the Lions for the second straight week. Starters Tyrell Williams and Kalif Raymond did not play Saturday, and their replacements, Breshad Perriman (no catches on two targets) and Quintez Cephus (two catches, 15 yards) were ineffective.

• Linebacker Derrick Barnes, who had six tackles, one sack and two pass deflections in the second half, after an unsightly performance by fill-in starting linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Jahlani Tavai.

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Either through miscommunication or missed assignment, Tavai, Reeves-Maybin and the Lions’ regular starting secondary (Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Tracy Walker and Will Harris) left several Steelers open for easy catches Saturday. Running back Najee Harris turned a short pass into a 46-yard gain after breaking a Tavai tackle, and Diontae Johnson beat Okudah deep for a 43-yard pass (although Okudah may have been expecting safety help over top from Harris).

“Obviously, we didn’t have a few guys go, but we can’t lean on that as a crutch,” Boyle said. “We should have done a better job in the first half of executing. There’s no way of getting around that. Not extremely pleased with how we played in that first group.”

The Steelers led 23-0 after three quarters before Blough made a case to be the Lions’ No. 2 quarterback.

He dug the Lions out of two second-and-longs with scrambles to set up Igwebuike’s 7-yard touchdown, then followed a Steelers field goal with a 10-play touchdown drive capped with a 10-yard pass to Javon McKinley.

Geronimo Allison recovered the ensuing onside kick, and Craig Reynolds scored on a 3-yard run for the Lions before the Steelers ran the final 1:56 off the clock.

“It’s always fun, always good when you can go out and just score points,” Blough said. “It was ugly at some points, it wasn’t always perfect, but I think it says something about the guys. Obviously, we want to win, we want to finish. But it says something about the guys that want to go out there and fight, and there’s a lot of guys who were doing everything they can to do things right and it feels good when it shows up and some of that work is rewarded.”

Roethlisberger finished 8-for-10 passing for 137 yards and two touchdowns and backup Mason Rudolph was 13-for-18 for 138 yards for the Steelers.

The Lions, 0-2 this preseason, close exhibition play next week against the Indianapolis Colts.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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