Detroit Lions first-half observations vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Why A.J. Parker might stick

Detroit Free Press

PITTSBURGH — The A.J. Parker experiment may be more than an experiment.

Parker, an undrafted rookie out of Kansas State, has spent most of the past two weeks working with the first-team defense at slot cornerback.

Most assumed he was a placeholder for Mike Ford (who opened training camp as the starting slot corner) or one of the two veterans — Corn Elder and Nickell Robey-Coleman — on the roster.

But Parker keeps making plays, and at this point there’s reason to believe he will be — or should be — playing in sub packages when the Detroit Lions open the season Sept. 12 against the San Francisco 49ers.

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Parker was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal first half Saturday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played alongside the rest of the starting secondary (while most of the rest of the starting defense sat) and was credited with six tackles, two for loss, and one pass breakup.

Parker made a tackle on the first offensive snap of the game, when he met James Washington on the catch to hold the Steelers receiver to a short gain. He made a jarring hit on big rookie running back Najee Harris to knock a catch loose later in the first quarter and made a nice tackle in the backfield on a run blitz off right end.

Things weren’t all great for the starting secondary. Jeff Okudah, who has had an excellent camp, got beat on a long pass by Diontae Johnson (though Okudah may have been expecting safety help over the top).

But Parker looks like he could be the latest secondary gem uncovered by Lions general manager Brad Holmes, who had a habit of finding that type of talent in his previous job as the Los Angeles Rams’ college scouting director.

More observations from Saturday

• Saturday’s first half wasn’t pretty, but don’t be too alarmed by the 20-0 halftime score. Ben Roethlisberger played three series and led two touchdown drives, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster played late into the second quarter, and the Lions held a number of starters out on both sides of the ball.

Among the Lions who did not play Saturday: Jared Goff, D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, T.J. Hockenson, Tyrell Williams, Kalif Raymond, Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker, Michael Brockers, Nick Williams, Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, Alex Anzalone and Jamie Collins.

[ Goff, Swift among starters likely to sit vs. Steelers ]

• Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Jahlani Tavai started at linebacker in place of Anzalone and Collins, and it was Reeves-Maybin wearing the the defensive headset. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than Tavai frequently seemed to be relaying plays with the second-team defense in camp.

Reeves-Maybin is assured of a roster spot as the Lions’ best special teams player. Tavai is firmly on the roster bubble, even after linebackers coach Mark DeLeone sung his praises earlier this week.

But neither had a great game Saturday. Tavai, who allowed the only touchdown in last week’s loss to the Buffalo Bills, missed a tackle on a check-down to Najee Harris that went for a 46-yard gain; he also appeared to be following the wrong man several times in coverage. Reeves-Maybin got beat on two passes to Eric Ebron and a touchdown to Pat Freiermuth, though he might have been expecting help over the top from safety Will Harris on the TD.

Rookie Derrick Barnes will be the team’s No. 3 linebacker eventually, and if I were the Lions I’d give a long look to Anthony Pittman in next week’s final preseason game. At most, the Lions have roster room for either Tavai OR Pittman.

[ Onwuzurike ‘back to normal’ after injury, ready for preseason debut ]

• One other bright spot in the first half: Rookie defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. The second-round pick, making his preseason debut, had a disruptive first half, though he was credited with just one tackle. He drove backup tackle Dan Moore into the backfield on the first play of Pittsburgh’s 93-yard field goal drive to gift Miles Brown a tackle for loss, he forced quarterback Mason Rudolph to leave the pocket early later in the drive and he pressured Rudolph into an incompletion on third-and-goal.

• Penei Sewell played all but the Lions’ final kneel-down snap of the first half at right tackle, and one series more than the only other offensive line starters who played, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Jonah Jackson.

Sewell remains a work in progress at his new position, and the Lions (rightfully) seem to be racing to get him ready for the regular season. He got knocked off balance on one pass rush early in the game, forcing Tim Boyle to throw early and incomplete to Breshad Perriman, and he gave up an easy pressure to Melvin Ingram in the second quarter.

The Lions have invested so much in their offensive line — and have so many holes elsewhere on offense — that they can’t afford for that unit to be a weakness, even though we know it will take Sewell time to get up to speed.

• Jack Fox is in midseason form, netting 52.3 yards on his four first-half punts.

At one point Saturday, I heard someone in the other side of the press box say of the Lions, “Man, these guys aren’t very good.”

A few minutes later, after Fox bombed a 70-yard punt to the Pittsburgh 3-yard line, the same voice chimed in, “They have a good punter, though.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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