Some second day thoughts after reviewing Detroit’s preseason opener

Detroit News

It’s difficult enough to absorb everything that’s happening during a regular season NFL game, when you have a better grasp of who is playing and where, but the chaos is amplified when teams are working with significantly larger rosters and more aggressively mixing and matching personnel during the preseason.

So, when the schedule allows the time, it’s beneficial to go through the tape after a preseason game, even if it’s just the broadcast replay, to gain a better grasp on the nuance missed during the initial, live viewing.

Here are some observations from that review:

► It was only 10 plays, but what more can be said about the effectiveness of the first-team offense on the game’s opening possession. This is what general manager Brad Holmes built it to look like when things are clicking.

The ability to tax the defense both vertically and horizontally showed up early, when tight end Brock Wright was left uncovered across the middle, turning a short pass into an 18-yard pickup.

The offensive line also lived up to its billing, providing solid protection of quarterback Jared Goff and generating consistent push on run plays. Detroit’s ability to move the ball on the ground, which put them ahead of the sticks multiple times during the drive, unlocked play-action, resulting in the biggest gain on the series, a 20-yard crossing pattern to Amon-Ra St. Brown.

The beauty of it all is the Lions overcame two execution errors on the drive, a blown block by Penei Sewell that put them in an early second-and-long, and a dropped pass by Jamaal Williams on a later first down. Last year, this team struggled to overcome being behind in the chains, but had no such issues this series.

Finally, DJ Chark was a non-factor on the stat sheet, but the speedy outsider receiver has been a huge part of what’s been working on the practice field for the Lions. That should leave you feeling like there’s even more reason to be optimistic about the unit’s potential this year.

► Quickly on Wright, his blocking was also encouraging. He struggled in that department as a rookie, and if this is a sign of things to come, he’ll be locked into the No. 2 tight end role.

► Defensively, Aidan Hutchinson is the injection in the arm the Lions have desperately needed up front. He’s all gas, no brakes every snap, which showed up in positive and negative ways during his preseason debut.

The obvious positives with Hutchinson were the tackle for loss, where he swatted away an offensive tackle en route to the backfield, as well as his ability to draw a holding infraction, which is nearly as good as a sack. But Hutchinson also got caught early over-pursuing on the backside, failing to protect his edge and getting burned when quarterback Marcus Mariota cut it back for a decent gain.

Savviness will undoubtedly come for Hutchinson, just like it did for Detroit’s last No. 2 overall pick Nkdamukong Suh, who frequently had his aggression used against him early in his career. But by the end of his second season, he was able to better identify what defenses were trying to do to him and deploy counter measures.

And, to be fair, over-aggression and run fits were an issue across the front seven on Friday. Charles Harris similarly gave away his edge in backside pursuit and the linebackers struggled with their downhill paths, particularly an early snap by Derrick Barnes, who gave away a lane by going inside a block, opposite the direction of his teammates that resulted in a 15-yard gain.

► Jeff Okudah looked fine in his return to action, moving well, cutting without hesitation and embracing contact when he needed to make a tackle.

Yes, the footwork wasn’t great on the third-down catch he surrendered in the red zone. He simply got caught leaning on the receiver’s release at the line and couldn’t recover on the slant route. Every corner is going to lose some, but it was a notable, positive step in the right direction for the third-year cornerback overall.

► Tim Boyle’s inconsistent placement was the most troubling aspect of his performance. The backup quarterback misfired on a number of throws, missing both long and wide.

I also have a different perspective of his 45-yard completion to Kalif Raymond early in the second quarter. Obvious credit goes to the QB for earning a free play by drawing the defense offside with a hard count — something Boyle proved adept at doing during his playing time last season — but a better safety than former Lion Mike Ford never lets that ball get to Raymond. Ford took an awful angle as the deep help. He should have arrived at the spot in plenty of time to break up the pass.

Take away that completion and Boyle finishes with 66 passing yards across two quarters.

► David Blough obviously had the better showing of the backup quarterbacks. What really stood out about his performance was his footwork, both in and out of the pocket. On his first snap, he did a really impressive job stepping up in the pocket, avoiding some interior pressure, all while keeping his eyes downfield. Finally, he was able to reset his feet to get his shoulders square before finding Tom Kennedy downfield.

Blough rushed for all of 262 yards his four years in college. It’s not part of his resume. The track speed in the family belongs to wife, Olympic hurdler Melissa Gonzalez, but Blough demonstrated awareness and timing with his scrambles, plus the ability to empty out his bag of tricks to gain an advantage, expertly utilizing a pump fake to get a defender to leave his feet in the open field.

Blough was also the more accurate of quarterbacks, showing nice zip on a couple, on-target, out-breaking routes.

► Rookie Kerby Joseph is a willing and competent open-field tackler, but the rangy safety struggled in coverage, particularly a couple of man assignments where his still-developing instincts are holding him back from maximizing his physical gifts.

This isn’t surprising news to the Lions, who talked about Joseph’s need for continued development when the drafted him.

► Craig Reynolds continues to look like the No. 3 running back behind D’Andre Swift and Williams. Reynolds played far fewer reps than Jermar Jefferson, but ran the ball well and recorded a special teams tackle. The veteran continues to be detail-oriented with the execution of his assignments.

Jefferson’s outing was obviously disappointing. He admittedly didn’t get much help from his blocking, but he also didn’t create anything on his own while taking 11 handoffs. And his underdeveloped route running showed up when he couldn’t shake free of a linebacker running an angle route, a backfield staple in the NFL.

► Reverting to a role he explored under the previous coaching staff, linebacker Anthony Pittman spent a considerable amount of time rushing off the edge. Even more surprisingly, he was having success with those opportunities, beating an offensive tackle for a pressure and coming through clean after looping inside on a stunt.

► I liked what I saw from former first-round pick Jarrad Davis. Yeah, he got flagged for a questionable roughing the passer infraction, but he was causing plenty of problems for the Falcons as a blitzer and he also recorded a diving pass breakup.

► If there’s one player we need to see more of in the second and third preseason games it’s cornerback Chase Lucas. The seventh-round pick barely played, registering just seven defensive snaps, but with a pass breakup and open-field tackle on Atlanta’s final drive, he shined with his limited opportunities.

►We included Devin Funchess in our stock report as a player trending up, but I really liked the intensity and heart he showed in his debut with the Lions. Not only did he catch all four balls thrown his way, he was looking for extra yards after those grabs, whether it was hurdling a defender or twice lowering his shoulder, embracing contact.

Also, if the conversion to tight end is going to be successful, he’ll need to show he can block. On one snap, he lined up off tackle and was asked to pull. Impressively, he executed well, laying an efficient block.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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