What to watch for in the Detroit Lions’ preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions open the preseason Friday evening, hosting the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field for a 6 p.m. matchup. The game will air locally on FOX 2 and will include former University of Michigan and Inkster High School standout Devin Gardner as part of the broadcast team.

Whether you’re planning to be at the stadium or watching from home, here’s a quick viewing guide for the contest:

Bang for your buck

Lions coach Dan Campbell said earlier in the week he intends to give his starters some playing time, with the initial aim being about a quarter of action. That adds some value to the game and will offer an early look at the cohesion of the top offensive and defensive groupings, including the offseason incorporation of key free-agent additions DJ Chark and DeShon Elliott.

Of course, there are some injury issues that will keep a handful of players on the sideline. That potentially includes Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, who didn’t participate in Wednesday’s practice with an undisclosed issue.

Also banged up are some top reserves. Linebacker Julian Okwara, defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike and wide receiver Quintez Cephus won’t play. And a few others are on the inactive lists with injuries, including defensive end Romeo Okwara (Achilles), cornerback Jerry Jacobs (ACL) and fullback Jason Cabinda (ankle).

Fresh faces

Obviously, one of the best parts of the preseason is getting an early look at the team’s rookie class. For Detroit, that’s led by edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who has shown plenty of promise during his first pro camp. Expect the former Michigan standout to get the start Friday. You can also expect his performance of “Billie Jean,” from the first episode of “Hard Knocks” will be shown on video board in the stadium.

Unfortunately, the Lions will be without two of their top three selections from April as wide receiver Jameson Williams (ACL) and defensive lineman Josh Paschal (sports hernia) remain sidelined with injuries. At this point, it’s difficult to see either being ready for the Sept. 11 season opener against Philadelphia.

Other rookies worth keeping an eye on are safety Kerby Joseph, nickel corner Chase Lucas and sixth-rounders James Houston and Malcolm Rodriguez. The linebacker out of Oklahoma State has been a camp darling for the coaching staff with his instincts and eagerness to deliver a big hit. He should see plenty of snaps in this one as he pushes for a bigger-than-expected role in Year 1.

Also, don’t sleep on undrafted rookie defensive tackle Demetrius Taylor, who has shown a knack for getting into the backfield and being disruptive.

Welcome back

One formerly injured player who will be making his long-awaited return to the field is cornerback Jeff Okudah. It will be his first game action since rupturing his Achilles in the season opener last year.

Given the constantly shifting rotations in practice, it’s unclear whether he or Will Harris will get the start, but the expectation is the former first-round pick will see playing time after being rested for the team’s scrimmage at Ford Field last weekend.

“It’s a big deal, to be back out there on the same field that I got hurt the first time,” Okudah said. “It’s going to be a big day for me.”

After being held out of the early stages of the offseason program as he wrapped up his rehab, Okudah has been full speed since the start of training camp.

“I think everything’s coming together pretty smooth,” he said Wednesday. “This week felt pretty good. …I’m happy where I’m at, but at the same time, still demanding more out of myself every single day to get to that next level.”

Tweaks and adjustments

Despite a good deal of continuity with the coaching staff, the Lions are making notable tweaks to their offensive and defensive schemes this year.

On offense, first-year coordinator Ben Johnson has worked diligently with quarterback Jared Goff to create a playbook better tailored to the roster’s skill sets, all while overhauling the verbiage of the play calls to help speed up the tempo.

In terms of what you’ll see Friday, expect the game plan to vanilla. But keep an eye on whether the offense, particularly the starting group, attempts to push the pace, even if that only means hurrying to the line of scrimmage to give Goff more time to decipher the defensive setup.

Defensively, Detroit is placing a greater emphasis on attacking throughout the front seven this year. That means a more aggressive pass rush and linebackers playing more downhill, ditching the read-and-react approach from the past few seasons.

Blitzing always will be a component of coordinator Aaron Glenn’s strategy, particularly on third down, but if any extra rushers are sent on the rush against the Falcons, the purpose largely will be evaluating the individual talent in those situations, as opposed to unveiling strategies that could be deployed during the regular season.

Job battles ramp up

Even before the first preseason game, we have a pretty firm grasp on who the offensive and defensive starters will be this season. The lingering question marks are the aforementioned cornerback battle between Harris and Okudah and the second linebacker spot alongside Alex Anzalone, which is primarily being contested between free-agent addition Chris Board and Derrick Barnes, who the Lions selected in the fourth round a year ago.

The more notable competitions are for the last several spots on the roster, with plenty still needing to be sorted out. Areas of interest include tight end, running back, defensive tackle and safety, where the Lions have built up some intriguing depth and won’t be able to keep it all.

From those position groups, players we’ll be watching closely after they’ve flashed during camp practices include running back Jermar Jefferson, tight end Shane Zylstra and defensive lineman John Cominsky.

For hints on the team’s thinking, keep an eye on how players are being used on special teams. If they’re getting reps with the top kickoff and punt groups, it often implies the coaches are high on a player and want to make sure they can be counted on in those critical game-day roles.

Finally, the Lions are still trying to figure out who will kick for the team this season. And while reliability on field goals is the driving factor in that decision, don’t dismiss how Austin Seibert and Riley Patterson execute their kickoff duties. Placement and hangtime will be more important than distance in the preseason, since the team wants to evaluate the coverage ability across the roster.

Preseason opener: Lions vs. Falcons

Kickoff: 6 p.m. Friday, Ford Field Detroit

TV/radio: FOX 2/97.1 FM


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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