Detroit Lions-Steelers observations: Pass rush looks formidable in sloppy preseason finale

Detroit Free Press

PITTSBURGH – That wasn’t how Dan Campbell wanted to finish the preseason.

The Detroit Lions played most of their starters about a half in Sunday’s sloppy exhibition finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but at least the Lions can take solace in knowing their rebuilt pass rush looks ready for action heading into the regular season.

The Lions sat starting defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Alim McNeill (along with quarterback Jared Goff and running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams) but still got consistent pressure on Steelers starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky from defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and Charles Harris.

Hutchinson and Harris split a sack on third-and-8 on the Steelers’ opening series, and each a drew a holding penalty on projected starting left tackle Dan Moore before leaving the game. Steelers guard Kevin Dotson also was flagged for a false start when he jumped early trying to anticipate a Harris pass rush.

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The Lions have struggled to generate meaningful pressure on opposing quarterbacks in recent seasons, but their line should be the strength of their defense this fall.

Harris, coming off a career-high 7.5-sack season, looks poised for another big season after a strong training camp, and Hutchinson has met expectations so far as the No. 2 overall pick.

If Harris and Hutchinson can stay healthy and McNeill builds on his strong rookie season, the Lions could have a formidable pass rush to complement what should be a well-rounded offense this fall.

More observations from the first half Sunday

⋅ With Swift and Williams in street clothes, the Lions took the opportunity to give second-year running back Jermar Jefferson reps with the first-team offense. Jefferson started the first five offensive series and ran for 28 yards on six carries in the first half, but still looks like a long shot to make the roster.

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In fairness to Jefferson — and really the offense — the Lions did not get a great play from their offensive line Sunday. Tight end T.J. Hockenson whiffed on a backside block on T.J. Watt on Jefferson’s first carry, and Penei Sewell couldn’t hold off Watt on a third-and-3 run on the same series.

But Jefferson’s only notable carry came on a third-and-17 draw play, when he gained 27 yards and had blocks from Hockenson, Sewell and DJ Chark downfield, and he bobbled a catch on a David Blough pass in the flat and couldn’t hold off a blitzing safety on one Steelers sack.

⋅ Justin Jackson didn’t have great first-half numbers, either, in more limited offensive action, but he looked more explosive. Jackson had one 14-yard run called back on a holding penalty by Jonah Jackson, he made a nice jump cut to evade a tackler for a short gain on his first series and showed some burst on his two kick returns.

Jackson did nearly lose a fumble just before the two-minute warning, and he looks to be behind Craig Reynolds in the running back rotation heading into Tuesday’s roster cuts.

Neither Blough nor Tim Boyle did anything in the first half to quell the belief the Lions need to look elsewhere for their backup quarterback.

Boyle started in place of Goff and had a rough three series. He led the offense to three first downs, had two passes batted down at the line of scrimmage and ended his run with the ones with a bad interception when he and Josh Reynolds were not on the same page on a third-and-15 throw downfield.

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Blough got two series with the first-team offense and played only slightly better. He nearly lost his second fumble of the preseason when he dropped a snap in the second quarter, but picked up the loose ball and threw a 24-yard strike to Reynolds for a first down.

Blough was 4 of 9 for 50 yards in the first half. He threw one incompletion behind Reynolds, fluttered a deep post short to DJ Chark and had one ball dropped by Shane Zylstra. Boyle was 3 of 8 for 25 yards with an interception in the first half.

⋅ I can’t imagine Campbell will be too happy with his team’s performance overall, and it wasn’t the cleanest game to head into the regular season on. The Lions committed eight first-half penalties (six of them were enforced), had three passes batted at the line of scrimmage and did not score a point.

On the bright side, at least the Lions escaped the preseason without major injury. I don’t know how serious they are, but two key Steelers, Watt (knee) and Diontae Johnson (shoulder), left Sunday’s game with injuries.

⋅ Aaron Glenn and Kelvin Sheppard are right to temper the expectations for Malcolm Rodriguez. He’s a sixth-round pick who hasn’t played a real down in the NFL. But Rodriguez keeps showing up in a big way on the field.

The rookie linebacker blew up one Steelers running play when Jeff Okudah had a tackle for loss, strung out another jet-motion running play for Derrick Barnes and Juju Hughes to make a stop and was the first player down on special teams on the Lions’ last punt of the first half.

If he can hold up at his size, he’s going to be a good player in this league for a long time.

⋅ Saivion Smith has done some good things in camp. He’s a big, physical defensive back, and he’s caught Dave Fipp’s eye on special teams. But Smith did not help his chances of making the roster Sunday, when he was flagged for pass interference, gave up a long pass on a back-shoulder fade and got beat for the Steelers’ first touchdown.

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

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