The Detroit Lions close the preseason Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Starters from both teams are expected to play the first half, though the Lions will rest quarterback Jared Goff.
Lions coach Dan Campbell said he will use the second half to get a final evaluation on players on the roster bubble. Here are five players to watch:
RB Justin Jackson
Jackson was a late addition to the running back room, joining the Lions on Aug. 1 after a training camp injury to Greg Bell. He had a strong performance in last week’s preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts, when he ran for a game-high 54 yards on seven carries, and Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said the team wants to “showcase” Jackson on Sunday “just to see what he can continue to bring to the table for us.”
With D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams set atop their depth chart, the Lions are looking for one or two backup running backs who also can contribute on special teams. Craig Reynolds has played most of the summer in the No. 3 spot and Godwin Igwebuike is the favorite to win the kick return job, but Jackson could play his way into a roster spot in Detroit or elsewhere with another big game.
CB Saivion Smith
Smith has quietly had a very nice camp for the Lions while playing primarily with the second- and third-string defense. He’s a big cornerback at 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds who has a physical presence on the field and who contributed on special teams when no one was watching late last season. The Lions used Smith as a safety at times in practice this week and could use Sunday’s game to see if he can add value in a multipurpose role in the secondary.
“That guy has just been fighting his tail off, no matter what it is that we ask him to do,” Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant said. “Last year, we brought him in Arizona on a short week, he comes in on special teams and goes and makes a play. You hear coach Dan talk about grit, he embodies it. I just need him to keep playing well.”
QB Mason Rudolph
Tim Boyle and David Blough have been locked in a battle for the backup quarterback job all camp, but Rudolph could be a surprise entry in the mix. Rudolph started 10 games as the Steelers’ backup in 2019-21, but he’s fighting for a roster spot as Pittsburgh’s No. 3 quarterback behind Mitchell Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett.
Boyle will start Sunday for the Lions and Blough should play the second half. Neither has pulled away in the competition, and Campbell acknowledged this week it’s possible the Lions look outside their roster for a backup. One of Boyle or Blough remains the best bet for the job, but the Lions are second on the waiver claim order and Rudolph’s situation is similar to Blough’s in 2019, when the Lions traded for Blough one day after he completed 11 of 17 passes for 115 yards with two interceptions in a preseason win over the Lions.
WR Quintez Cephus
Cephus is in a three-way battle for the final one or two receiver spots on the Lions’ 53-man roster. The 2020 fifth-round pick has been mildly productive to this point in his career, catching 35 passes in 18 career games. But he also has battled injuries, including a leg injury that cost him most of training camp this summer.
Cephus will make his preseason debut Sunday after returning to practice last week. He probably offers more as a receiver than his competition for a backup job, Tom Kennedy and Trinity Benson, but he’ll have to prove again he can be trusted and can contribute on special teams.
Ks Austin Seibert and Riley Patterson
Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said this week the kicking competition was “extremely close.”
“It’s so close that we really should take the whole time and find out what happens in this last game and this last week and a half of practice,” he said.
Seibert and Patterson bring different skill sets to the competition, with Seibert owning the bigger leg and Patterson appearing to be the more accurate of the two. It’s possible the Lions already have their mind made up and are just holding out hope they can trade either Seibert or Patterson to a kicker-needy team. Either way, both should get a chance to kick Sunday in a stadium that’s notoriously tough on kickers. How they fare could determine who wins the job.