Detroit Lions observations vs. Colts: Second-team O-line sparks rushing attack, 27-26 win

Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — As good as the Detroit Lions’ starting offensive line is, they may have something even more valuable up front — depth.

The Lions got stellar play from their starting offensive line in last week’s preseason-opening loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and they got an equally impressive performance from their No. 2 group in the first half against the Indianapolis Colts in Saturday’s exhibition win, 27-26, their first preseason win under head coach Dan Campbell.

The Lions ran for 96 yards combined on their opening two drives, with Craig Reynolds (seven carries for 37 yards) taking advantage of several big holes to set up two Austin Seibert field goals.

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Reynolds had a pair of 11-yard rushes to open the Lions’ second possession, with the left side of the line creating ample room on both runs.

The Lions started Dan Skipper at left tackle, Logan Stenberg at left guard, Evan Brown at center, Tommy Kraemer at right guard and Matt Nelson at right tackle Saturday, and rotated Kendall Lamm in at both tackle spots throughout the first half.

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Lamm struggled some in pass protection, but Stenberg was one of the stars of the group. Stenberg had his share of hiccups during joint practices this week, but he had big blocks on both of Reynolds’ long runs and teamed with Skipper to open a hole for Jermar Jefferson’s 7-yard run on fourth-and-1.

The Lions don’t have room to keep 11 linemen — and might not be able to keep 10, either. But in a league where teams struggle to find good starting fives, the Lions have the makings of one of the deepest offensive fronts in the NFL.

More observations from Saturday’s game

• The Lions did not dress a single offensive starter Saturday, and had only a couple potential defensive starters — the ones in position battles — in the lineup. Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes started at linebacker (with Alex Anzalone out), Will Harris and Jeff Okudah started at cornerback (with Amani Oruwariye out) and AJ Parker and Mike Hughes saw time at slot cornerback in the first half.

• David Blough started at quarterback in place of Jared Goff and played the entire first half, completing 16 of 22 passes for 76 yards.

Blough picked up 18 yards on a couple scrambles on the opening drive, but he did not get anything going downfield and made a crucial mistake for the second straight week, throwing an interception midway through the second quarter when he forced a third-and-3 pass into traffic over the middle.

Give Colts linebacker Forrest Rhyne credit for a nice pass breakup on the play, and Tony Brown deserves a nod, too, for snatching the ricochet out of the air. But Blough can’t afford those type of turnovers if he’s going to edge Tim Boyle for the backup job and a roster spot.

• Interception aside, Blough did some good things Saturday. He led a two-minute touchdown drive late in the first half, when he completed nine of 11 passes and threw a 5-yard TD to Tom Kennedy as the half expired. Blough has a toughness about him in the pocket, and his personality seems to fit Campbell’s style, but Boyle has the bigger arm and better tools.

I don’t get the sense anything has been decided at the quarterback position yet. How Blough and Boyle play in next week’s preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers could determine who serves as the Lions’ No. 2 quarterback this fall.

• Maurice Alexander is a longshot to make the 53-man roster, but he made a strong bid for a practice squad spot with a couple nice kick returns Saturday.

The USFL’s top return man before signing with the Lions this summer, Alexander had returns of 61 and 45 yards in the first half. Alexander got nice blocks on both returns, from Reynolds and Brock Wright on the first and Jefferson on the second. But he’s slippery and would be good insurance if the Lions want something more than Godwin Igwebuike can offer in the return game.

• Sticking with special teams, Seibert made two of three field goal attempts in the first half, missing a 55-yarder off the right upright. Seibert has kicked ahead of Riley Patterson in both games and still feels like the favorite to win that job given his leg strength.

• On defense, the Lions gave up key third-down conversions on two of the Colts’ three first-half scoring drives. Will Harris got beat on a crossing route on third-and-6 on the Colts’ first possession, but he was in off coverage and had too much ground to cover to be expected to make that play.

More concerning was the third-and-9 conversion the Colts had a few plays later, when Hughes bit on a bubble screen fake and let Dezmon Patmon get behind him for a big gain, and the third-and-7 Mark Gilbert allowed on the Colts’ first touchdown drive.

Gilbert also gave up the touchdown pass, when Mike Strachan might have gotten away with offensive pass interference, extending his arm to separate from Gilbert in the end zone.

• Rodriguez and Barnes played well at linebacker, flying around the field to make one and three tackles, respectively, while they were in the game. Jarrad Davis, who looks like the fifth inside linebacker (on a team that may only keep four, plus a few special teams contributors), got beat on a 19-yard pass on the Colts’ touchdown drive when he bit on a run fake then slipped as he retreating to cover tight end Kevin Granso

• Kennedy continues to outshine his competition for the fifth and sixth receiver jobs. Quintez Cephus has not played the first two weeks because of injury, and Trinity Benson has made minimal contributions. Kennedy, meanwhile, caught two touchdown passes in the first 36 minutes of Saturday’s game, including a 10-yard TD on a dime from Tim Boyle on the Lions’ opening possession of the second half.

• Boyle may have gained ground in the backup quarterback race, playing much better Saturday than he did last week against the Falcons and leading the go-ahead touchdown drive.

Boyle completed 12 of 15 passes for 99 yards and led two touchdown drives while playing the entire second half with what was essentially the Lions’ third-team offense. He threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kennedy on the Lions’ opening possession of the third quarter, then engineered an 18-play drive that covered more than 9 minutes of the fourth quarter.

The Lions converted four third downs on the game-winning drive, with Boyle running for a first down on third-and-6 and completing passes to Shane Zylstra and Trinity Benson on third-and-9 and third-and-6, respectively. Godwin Igwebuike scored on a 2-yard run with 4:03 to play.

The Colts answered with their own 11-play, 72-yard touchdown drive. Jack Coan threw a 26-yard touchdown to Samson Nacua with 38 seconds left, but Coan threw incomplete on the two-point conversion attempt and Kennedy recovered the onside kick.

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

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