Yes, it’s preseason, but Detroit Lions don’t show a hint of new, aggressive pass offense

Detroit Free Press

They say teams show nothing in the NFL preseason, that offenses are vanilla and defenses are maybe even blander than that.

Well, the Detroit Lions showed everyone at Ford Field on Friday night that vanilla has some flavor and can be satisfying when you add a few sprinkles.

The Lions’ first-team offense didn’t break out its revamped downfield passing attack in a 27-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. But under Jared Goff’s direction for exactly one drive, the offense operated efficiently en route to a 10-play, 79-yard drive that culminated in D’Andre Swift’s 9-yard touchdown run on a draw.

Yep, a draw. On first-and-goal from the 9.

Not exactly thrilling, innovative play-calling. But certainly smart and efficient play-calling that gets the job done.

Is that going to work in the regular season, when defenses actually game plan? Who knows?

At the very least, we can say this about the first look at the Lions’ offense under new coordinator Ben Johnson: It wasn’t flashy but it worked and resulted in a touchdown. And that was without Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson in the game.

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Goff was 3 of 4 for 47 yards, but he never attempted a deep pass. When the offensive line bought Goff so much time on one play that it could have been measured by sundial, every receiver was covered. So Goff threw into the flat to running back Jamaal Williams, who dropped the pass.

Otherwise, Goff connected on short passes that turned into good catch-and-run gains by tight end Brock Wright and twice to receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.

The Lions’ starting defense did some good things, especially on consecutive hits and tackles by No. 2 overall draft pick Aidan Hutchinson. But it still allowed two third-down conversion and yielded a touchdown on an 82-yard drive led by Marcus Mariota.

The defense continues to be the major concern. But that’s why the offense is so crucial to the Lions’ hopes of improvement this season. It’s the one aspect of the team that showed promise last season, especially in the second half when the Lions got all their wins.

Check-downs and draws are fine in the preseason, but the offense is going to require a different level of boldness and daring when the regular season arrives. If the Lions hope to improve, they must play complementary football and have the offense help the defense by scoring early and often.

Goff joked earlier this week about the Lions’ offense not having that downfield, aggressive component. “No, we don’t do that here,” he said Tuesday. “We don’t throw it down the field at all.”

But sarcasm on Tuesday became reality on Friday. I asked Goff when we might see some of that aggressive, downfield passing attack. In the preseason? Maybe not until the season starts?

“I don’t know,” he said flatly. “We’ll see. You guys come to practice, right? I don’t call the plays, but we’ll see.”

Yes, Goff doesn’t call the plays. He does what he’s told, and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with what he was told Friday. During a halftime interview on television, he complemented Johnson’s performance and his “cool, calm and collected” demeanor.

And that brings us back to the vanilla Johnson served his QB. Teams hardly spend any time game-planning for preseason opponents. It’s more about looking inward at your own team, and coach Dan Campbell had no mandate for deep balls or balance and was pleased with what Johnson asked Goff and the first-team offense to do.

“No, I told Ben, ‘Just call it. Just let it roll. Let’s go,’ ” Campbell said. “I don’t care if he called 10 passes. I just wanted us to flow and move it a little bit.”

So I asked Campbell when we might see the Lions’ aggressive, downfield attack. The one that’s a joke but not a joke. The one we sometimes see during training camp practices against the Lions’ own defense when the quarterback wears a red jersey and can’t be hit. Will we see it in the preseason or wait until the games count?

“I think some of that is predicated on when the defense will allow you to do it,” he said. “We asked him to throw it really four times today. We kind of mixed it in, and so we had a couple plays in there.

“But the defense wasn’t really just designed to take the shot, if you will. But those will come as they come. We’ve done much better this year than we did last year. We got a lot of good looks in camp, and so I feel pretty confident when the times comes, as we get more reps it will come in the games.”

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Goff to sling some deep passes in the preseason — or maybe anymore passes at all. Apparently, he wasn’t even supposed to play in Friday’s game.

So we’ll probably have to wait until Darius Slay and the Philadelphia Eagles, with their top-10 defense from last year, arrive at Ford Field on Sept. 11. Until then, enjoy the vanilla and hope for a few sprinkles.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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